Hope Shines Through Afghanistan's Struggles

Returning to Afghanistan for the first time in four years, I found a country dramatically changed in some ways, depressingly familiar in others.

Today, the capital Kabul is a city of jarring contrasts -- with brand new, western-style malls surrounded by bleak poverty, and new mansions for the city's wealthiest next door to slums built from scrap.

One of the most remarkable steps forward is that girls, banned from school under the Taliban, have returned by the millions. But once again, they study at their own risk, as a resurgent Taliban has burned many girls' schools to the ground.

Walking through the new Kabul with 25-year-old Arian Mouj, once ABC's translator there, who's just returned after three years studying in the United States, I was amazed that some streets that used to be dirt roads were now lined with somewhat tall buildings for Kabul.

"I remember exactly what was here," Mouj said. "Most of these were just old mud houses.

Mouj approves of the rapid growth.

"We need to grow fast," he said. "We are so much behind."

It is easy to find people left behind. Today, Afghans are far more likely to live in homes they built themselves, without running water, without a job.

"I think the way they were doing the reconstruction and the way the money was being spent throughout the city should have been more, sort of, evenly [distributed]," Mouj said. "Certain parts of the city, you see, is very nice, a lot of change. But here you see this [open sewers] … which hasn't changed for 100 years."

In the countryside, change is coming even more slowly. Redevelopment projects and dollars have focused on the capital and left rural areas, especially in the south, deprived, frustrated -- and increasingly unsafe.

The Taliban controls wide areas of the south. And U.S. forces that were focused on reconstruction are now at war again in some areas.

Many Afghans fear their country's rebuilding will go the way of Iraq's -- disrupted by violence. And so they struggle just to meet the most basic needs -- clean water, simple homes.

"It does create a sense of frustration for the people who can't have it," Mouj said.

So what's winning out now, the hope or frustration?

"I think," Mouj said, "mostly, especially in the cities, it's the hope. The hope."