As a first-time visitor to Afghanistan, I was immediately struck by a number of things I wasn't accustomed to seeing every day. Women covered head-to-toe in sky-blue burkas. High perimeter walls that gave every home, no matter how humble, the look of a fortified compound. Hundreds of street vendors hawking everything from butchered lambs to bootleg Bollywood soundtracks to American cigarettes.
But most of all, it was the guns.
To my Westernized eyes, they seemed to be everywhere. Imposing automatic weapons strapped to the sides of soldiers at Kabul Airport. Rifle barrels poking out of the back of military vehicles. Even the farmer in the smallest village had a gun resting up against a wall in his home. They're commonplace in a country that has been molded by a seemingly never-ending series of armed struggles in its 90 years of independence.
Over the last 30 years, especially, the fighting hasn't seemed to stop. There was the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when Red Army forces attempted to gain control of what they saw as the largest threat to their control of Central Asia. They withdrew defeated in 1989, which sparked a 12-year civil war as the secular government grappled for control with the Islamic fighters known as the mujahidin.
Out of this instability arose the Taliban. This radical Islamic group -- known for its terror tactics, strict religious ideology and discrimination against women -- drew to its cause frustrated former mujahidin and Afghans seeking stability at any price. They were most successful courting impoverished young people with few job prospects and no means to an education. The Taliban proved -- through their terror tactics and strict religious ideology -- to be enormously powerful, taking control of over 90 percent of the country by the year 2000.
The U.S. entered the fray after the September 11th attacks, when U.S.-led forces conducted air and ground attacks aimed at deposing the Taliban and forcing them to give up Osama Bin Laden, whom the de facto government considered a "guest" in their country. Operation "Enduring Freedom" helped the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance regain control of the country's major cities.
A new U.S.-supported government took power in 2002, with a new constitution and Hamid Karzai as president. It hasn't been an easy transition. Karzai has so far survived four assassination attempts, while several of his cabinet members, including vice-president Abdul Qadir, have not been as fortunate.
The fighting between U.S. forces and Afghan militants still rages on in the country's south, along the country's mountainous border with Pakistan. And violence still pervades the country. A French aid worker was kidnapped a few blocks from our Kabul office on the day I arrived, and over the next 10 days, I would hear reports of three suicide bombings in Kabul and Kunduz, the two major cities in northern Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, the ongoing violence and instability impacted the lives of everyone I met during my trip. Syeed Masom, a yogurt maker in Kabul, told me of how his eldest son was killed when Taliban missiles struck a bazaar where he was working. Nasrin, a baker in Kabul, spoke of her struggles providing for her family after her husband suffered debilitating injuries in the civil war. A peach farmer named Daud Shah recounted the stress of uprooting his family of nine from his farm in Takhar to the safety of Pakistan, before returning five years later.
Thousands of Afghans, in fact, fled to Iran and Pakistan during the late '90s and early 2000s. It is only in the last few years that many have felt safe enough to return to their homes. And it is only in the past year or so that many of Mercy Corps' programs have taken root.
During my tour of those programs, I visited families in isolated rural areas where agriculture is essentially the only way to make a living. There, in villages around Kunduz, farmers lauded the new irrigation projects Mercy Corps helped them build to regulate the flow of water to their farmland -- markedly improving crop yields -- and to protect homes from flooding.
Many of the farmers were patiently waiting for the first harvest from peach, apricot and apple saplings that we helped them plant and cultivate. And they were preparing their sons to take over the land at agricultural high schools that Mercy Corps refurbished. In a nation where four out of every five laborers is employed in agriculture, these projects are vitally important.
While the farmers haven't yet seen the full effects of our efforts, 11,000 Afghans in the capital city of Kabul are already feeling the difference. They're the recipients of small loans, most less than $100, from a microlending institution we started called Ariana Financial Services. Most are women. I met several of these entrepreneurs -- bread bakers, yogurt makers, seamstresses -- who never before got the chance to prove their hand at running a business, but who are now on the path to financial independence.
The Afghans I met exuded hope and optimism. All those guns led me to believe I'd encounter just the opposite: a sense of fatalism. Weren't the weapons a reminder of how fleeting life could be in such a violent place? Didn't they suggest the futility of planning for a future that you or your family might never see?
Afghans would be forgiven for feeling this way, given the destruction and death they'd witnessed. Yet their attitudes dispelled my early notions. The small businesspeople in Kabul met me with huge smiles and boisterous spirits, excited about their prospects and what tomorrow had in store. The farmers living in the hills and valleys of northern Afghanistan stood tall, brimming with confidence that the next harvest would be so much better than the last.
Don’t get me wrong: Afghans are humble and realistic about their country's plight. They understand there nothing is certain, and that the stability of their homeland is constantly at risk -- realities that could upend all of their hard work. But the seeds of hope have been planted. We're helping them tend those seeds, which, with luck, will grow strong and flourish.