Day 6

Should they stay or should they go? Young Afghans struggle with their country's future

Donald Trump has pledged more troops to Afghanistan. But Soraya Afzali says her country's best hope is the new generation of educated young Afghans returning home to help rebuild.
Afghan students from the American University of Afghanistan arrive for a new term in Kabul in March 2017. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, U.S. President Donald Trump committed more troops to his country's 16-year war in Afghanistan.

The speech, delivered Monday in Arlington, Virginia, in front of military personnel and his cabinet, was President Trump's first national security address to the nation on a policy issue.

He offered few details on the new Afghanistan strategy and suggested that the military plans would not be released, as a means to keep "America's enemies" in the dark.


Currently, the U.S. has two military operations underway in Afghanistan. Neither of those are combat roles. But, as Soraya Afzali tells Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong, it doesn't matter if the U.S. plans to hunt terrorist cells or undertake nation-building, the real hope for her country lies with the new generation of young Afghans.

"I understand that living in Afghanistan is not easy. Every day is a struggle... but it's still an opportunity for anybody who stays in this country, because everything is untouched," Afzali says. 

"From a business perspective or economic perspective, there are always a lot of things that need to be done. It just needs a strong-willed person to stay here and take on those tasks."

Afzali is a 24-year-old social activist and part of Afghanistan's first wave of post-Taliban university graduates. She chose to study in Kabul despite earning a scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Soraya Afzali is a social activist and recent graduate of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. (Soraya Afzali)

While many of her peers are fleeing, Afzali, who graduated last month, says she's digging in to build a better future.

"I don't think I'm missing anything. I am in my own country, I have a free will of working on anything. I can start a business at any time I want and really invest into my country," Afzali says. 

Fighting to save a state in chaos

More than 2.5 million people have fled Afghanistan as the country slips further and further into chaos. While the pace of economic and political reform in Afghanistan is slow, safety is the bigger issue. 

This has been the deadliest year for Afghan soldiers protecting their country, and joint Taliban and ISIS attacks have killed more than 100 civilians this month alone.

Afghan security forces arrive at the site of a suicide attack followed by a clash with insurgents after an attack on a mosque in Kabul on August 25, 2017. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Last August, 12 people were gunned down in an attack on the American University, including seven students.Afzali was among the 750 huddled on campus at the time.

Afzali was stuck in a classroom listening to the gunfire around her, and while she says the attack hurt her physically and mentally, she doesn't want to let go of that memory.

"If I am giving up, if I am going to another country because these things had been happening to me for so long, then who is in this country to rebuild and to change that?" she asks.

A wounded man is helped by a medic inside an ambulance following an attack at American University of Afghanistan in Kabul on August 24, 2016. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Many of the students were just children when the Taliban regime collapsed. They've grown up with a higher standard of education and leadership that gives them hope of a better future.

"We have a young generation emerging, and that is our power and our answer to them," Afzali says in response to the attackers and political opponents.

If I am giving up, if I am going to another country because these things had been happening to me for so long, then who is in this country to rebuild and to change that?- Soraya Afzali

But car bombs and gunmen aren't the only challenges facing this generation, especially young women.

"I am facing sexual harassment every day. Even if I am going and buying groceries, I have to fight for my right," Afzali says of the patriarchal bent of Afghan society.

Her defiance wouldn't have been tolerated 16 years ago, but today she accepts the restrictions as a challenge to work even harder to prove her mettle.

Thinking about future generations

Afzali has lived life as both a refugee and a returnee to Afghanistan.

Her family fled Afghanistan for Iran when she was a baby, though she isn't sure exactly how old she was or the year they left. Both of her parents are illiterate, which is why they put a strong emphasis on education.

She attended school in Iran until grade five when her family was told the Iranian public school system would no longer be an option. That was around 2005, after the fall of the Taliban.

I am putting so much into this and that is something precious.- Soraya Afzali

Afzali's father decided it was time to return to Afghanistan, where the rules had changed and girls were allowed to attend school. Plus, despite years of conflict, it was home.

That's how Afzali sees the country also. She sees key government posts being handed to young, inexperienced leaders rather than more well-established men, and she wants to be one of those leaders.

"I am putting so much into this and that is something precious," she says. "That is something valuable for me." 

Students at the American University of Afghanistan attend new orientation sessions at the campus in Kabul. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

"If I'm not able stay through this and work in Afghanistan or study either internationally or nationally for Afghanistan, then ... if I have my daughter here, she will suffer the same thing I do," Afzali says. .

"So I am thinking on a much longer term rather than missing anything in some other countries."

To hear the full conversation with Soraya Afzali, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.