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"Make Afghanistan Great Again"

Afghan teens discover there is more to their identity than war

"Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?"
-Danielle LaPorte
Afghan teens in GSD program
Afghan teens involved in GSD's field mission
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As recent violence continues to rock Afghanistan, the US administration enters its 16th year of trying to figure out a peace-building strategy. Meanwhile, the rest of the world plummets to a new depth of war fatigue— most hardly able to recall what the conflict is even about, painting it as a lost cause. But while General Mattis mulls another round of troop increases, GSD’s mission in Afghanistan may already have uncovered the secret to solving this seemingly-endless conundrum. 

Ready? Take 20 Afghan teens on the cross-country road trip of a lifetime! 

Considering the big picture, all young people want their lives to have purpose. How they feel about themselves determines how they engage with the world around them— in either good ways or bad. What they collectively envision for their future is a pretty good gauge of what’s to come. So, with 70% of the Afghan population under the age of 25, Afghan “millennials” can be the greatest influencers by sheer numbers alone.
Picture of Afghanistan in 1960s
Picture of a park in Kabul, Afghanistan taken in the 1960s
What if they knew that for thousands of years, Afghanistan was a moderate Islamic nation, home to the ancient kingdoms of the Silk Road, and legendary producer of arts, architecture, philosophers, and poets? What if they knew that Afghanistan was not only a popular tourist destination for the Euro-elite, but in the 1970s hippies streamed in on the famed Hippie Trail in search of “recreational enlightenment?” What if they knew that women were educated, employed in positions of prominence, and…wait for it… wore short skirts

Yep, it all happened. The problem is that these kids have never known anything but war. And their parents can barely recall anything but war either. After 37 straight years of Soviet-invaders, opportunistic warlords, Taliban takeovers, post-9/11 foreign military occupations, and 24/7 chaos, there are no stories of the good old days to hold onto as they navigate an increasingly unpredictable future. 

In any society, community, or even family, when we lose sight of our potential greatness, we slowly succumb to the diminishing expectations of others. Nothing but grim stories of painful histories prevent us (and others) from realizing who we have the potential to be. The outside world paints us as a lost cause. 
Darul Aman Palace before
Darul Aman Palace, 1987
Darul Aman Palace after
Darul Aman Palace, 2008
This is where GSD comes in. 

Our latest GSD field mission in Afghanistan took 20 teenage Afghan teenage boys to the province of Bamiyan— an outpost along the ancient Silk Road, one of the world’s most significant cultural regions, and one of the most beautiful places imaginable. More than just teen leadership activities with international impact, it was a week-long, mind-bending, psyche-tapping program to help them:

1. Clear their mental slates.
2. Claim their amazing history.
3. Craft a vision for Afghanistan 2.0 that can create a new tipping point for their generation. 

Basically, Make Afghanistan Great Again.

After a five-hour road trip out of Kabul— far away from the military convoys, helicopters, and in-your-face reminders of war— our group finally exhaled at a guesthouse nestled in the lush foothills of the central Asian mountains where Silk Road caravans once criss-crossed the region. We climbed to hilltop outposts, toured UNESCO world heritage sites, picnicked under apricot trees alongside clear rivers, paddled across crystal blue lakes, and gave the selfie-sticks an intense workout. Watching the boys study historic photos of Afghanistan’s glory days was like watching once-empty vessels become filled. Day by day, they began to craft an exciting new vision of their future. (General Mattis, if you’re reading this…. call me!)
Old painting of the Silk Road in Afghanistan
Painting depicting caravans passing through Afghanistan on the Silk Road.
Afghan team at historic Silk Road site
Our team visiting an historic Silk Road outpost
While I watched them take turns reciting the vision to the group, I reflected on how this generation of American teens live in mental war zones of their own. Amidst fast-paced schedules, a barrage of targeted (and often age-inappropriate) media, and constant public scrutiny through social networking sites where the number of likes you get often reflects self-worthiness, they too navigate an increasingly unpredictable world— often leading to a variety of anxieties, depression, and eating disorders.

If the rise and fall of great societies largely hinges on how young people feel about themselves and engage with the world around them, could they too lose sight of who they really are before the world tells them who they should be? 

Who were you before the world told you who you should be?
Scenes from the Bamiyan vision-making adventure
Read what GSD Operatives say
How does society change over time, and how do teenagers have a role in that change?

See what GSD teen Operatives have to say.
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Dina in Afghanistan
By Dina Fesler
More from the GSD Blog:
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Stretching, GSD India
Unrecognized, GSD Somaliland
More blog posts
Listen to GSD podcast
Listen to Podcast episode: "MAGA"
More from the GSD Blog:
more from GSD blog
Stretching, GSD India
Unrecognized, GSD Somaliland
Other blog posts
World map
Operative responses page
GSD Operative Sarahblog paperclip
GSD Operative Sarah
Blown to bits. People running and screaming. Sand. Hijabs. Planes. Terror.

That was my perspective on Afghanistan. I knew there was a war going on, but didn't know the reasons why. And I knew that people were getting hurt everyday because of it. It’s fascinating to think that when my parents were teenagers they most likely weren't as aware of terrorism as kids in my generation are. I was born just before 9/11, making my whole life seem like an event after Americans realized violence wasn’t something that only happened in other countries.

Then I think of the Afghan guys who I have gotten to meet through GSD's stories and videos. They  introduced me to boys who have never not lived in constant war on their homeland. Whose fathers have never not seen war. The very existence of war seems normal and mundane.These boys who may have dreamed of becoming a pediatrician or an artist were stunted in the fact that their only reality was war.

I think in more ways than one, Dina and GSD have helped save these boys from a life of emptiness and loss of purpose. Many teens go through life trying many outlets to find purpose, only to find pain or more emptiness. I hear about my own friends trying drugs or drinking because they are insecure and afraid. My generation has grown up knowing fear. But we still don’t know how to deal with it. It makes me incredibly uncomfortable to sit in my home watching Netflix knowing someone in another country is being blown up. The fact that we constantly hear about all this pain in ways no other generation before us has brings us to new mental issues. We have lost our vision of positive news on the TV or countries not in war. We have lost the vision of peace in our country and in the world.

That doesn’t mean we can’t create a new vision. If our generation can work together with older generations to teach and spread acceptance and peace, our kids will too.
Photo Credits
(Darul Aman place, 1987) Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons.