Today, though still dependent on American support, it's a source of great pride for Afghans.
In a country where almost everything had to be built from scratch, there are signs of improvement, CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs correspodent Lara Logan reports, including some newly paved roads, a booming cell-phone industry, a glitzy new mall and a very vibrant free press.
Tolo TV is one example of Afghanistan's free press. It was founded by Saad Mohseni, who returned from Australia after the Taliban collapsed to help rebuild the country.
His controversial network pushes the limits of this still conservative society with MTV-style shows, exposes on government corruption and a female news anchor.
Saad says this is evidence of how a free press has opened the eyes of a nation.
"People can see things for the first time - they can see how people live in the U.S., watch soap operas, relax. Things that you very much take for granted in the U.S. we are beginning to see in Afghanistan," he says.
Like women's faces out on the streets of Kabul, for example. Unlike other areas, more women here have discarded their burquas and returned to the workplace.
At a high-end textile factory in Kabul, even the boss is a woman, Afghan-American Hassina Sherjan. She came home to Afghanistan with big ideas. Half of her employees are women, and through her network of nine schools across the country, Sherjan is educating close to 3,000 girls who were banned from school under the Taliban.
"It's a gift," Sherjan says. "To see that our students sometimes say things like 'if it wasn't for this program I wouldn't write my name.'"
There's no question that Afghanistan today is a vastly different country after five years of relative peace and the largest reconstruction project in the world. But the impact of that has yet to be felt by so many people here, for whom daily life is still a bitter struggle to survive.
It's especially bitter for refugee families, who returned home from camps in Pakistan filled with hope, only to spend the last four years in Kabul living in poor conditions.
"They lied to us," this father told me, echoing a growing number of people here who are losing faith because of the slow pace of change.
There are still millions of Afghans without access to proper health care, electricity and clean drinking water, while close to half are unemployed. Most of the country still cannot be reached by road.
Sima Samar, the head of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission, says rampant corruption has crippled the delivery of aid and slowed the pace of reconstruction.
"Because of lack of accountability and lack of proper justice, we keep losing," Samar says.
That's what's most frustrating for ordinary Afghans. There has been progress, but the sense of hope that has brought Afghanistan this far is slowly, but steadily, slipping away.