Flowing from the capital, the highway begins without promise, a long, curving scar stretching across the navel of Afghanistan. Potholes. Ruts. A bridge destroyed in an airstrike, still unfixed. Visible symbols of two decades of war, corruption, and neglect along the artery that connects the nation’s two largest cities, Kabul and Kandahar.
The conflict is over, at least as it was known for the past 20 years: airstrikes, night raids, ambushes, roadside bombs, a grass-roots insurgency that outmaneuvered the world’s most powerful army and its proxies.
Taliban fighters, whose attacks burnished this road’s reputation as “the highway of death,” are again Afghanistan’s rulers. The Americans have left, but peace remains elusive. There are fresh enemies, fresh challenges. Hundreds of Afghans have been killed by suicide-bombings and other attacks since the takeover. Millions more are struggling to find work, purchase necessities and pay rent amid multiple crises, including a collapsing economy, deepening humanitarian woes and drought.
If roads can be the chroniclers of a nation, transporting not just passengers and goods but also the stories, aspirations and fears of a people, then the 300-mile journey from Kabul to Kandahar on National Highway 1 unveils Afghanistan’s past, present and future in all its cataclysms and yearnings.
Largely rebuilt after 2001 with American funding at a cost of at least $300 million, the highway flows through five provinces: Kabul, Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul and Kandahar. Erasing hours of travel time, it was intended to win the hearts and minds of Afghans and bolster the nation’s economy — so much that, in 2004, President George W. Bush publicly praised its speedy construction. Instead, it became a war zone and a symbol of American failure.
Mile 1 of 300
We leave Kabul on an October morning as darkness gives way to light. It’s a drive filled with jerks and bumps and often at a snail’s pace due to the poor condition of the highway. We spot Afghan men alongside the road dressed in thick jackets. Winter is on the horizon.
At the checkpoint, the Taliban fighters are also bundled up. They inspect cars and trucks, ordering anyone suspicious to pull aside for further questioning. They are the government now, and the checkpoint is a way of asserting not only their victory, but also that they are capable of effective rule.
There is a long line of cars — mostly beat-up Toyotas or older trucks — streaming out of Kabul on this day. It is at once an indicator of how much safer the highway has become and of the poverty in the country.
After the checkpoint, the highway passes a strip of rocky hills. In the distance, the country’s majestic mountains, an offshoot of the famed Hindu Kush range, stretch across the rugged terrain. Lonesome billboards and mud-brick houses that seem centuries-old emerge before we cross into Wardak province, where the highway was targeted numerous times by Taliban militants over the years.
A few miles later, we spot the boy.
His name is Zalmay Adil, and he is standing in the middle of the highway, clutching a red megaphone, urging drivers to toss a few bills: “Help the students of the madrassa. Please help.”
The madrassa, or Islamic school, was in his village, Andar, less than a mile off the highway. Once an ideological training ground for future Taliban fighters, the school was now battling to exist. Aid from local agencies had dried up, and future support from the government was uncertain.
The 16-year-old had already been on the highway for several hours. Passersby had so far handed him 40 Afghanis — or roughly 50 cents. The goal was to collect around $12 a day.
Many Taliban fighters who orchestrated attacks on the highway still live nearby. We meet a group of them in Andar village, where the madrassa is located. Some had attended the school before joining the insurgency. With a sense of pride, they speak of their assaults on American and former Afghan government military convoys.
“We were digging holes at night and planting as many as four to seven mines in one hole,” said Safiullah Hammad, 26, whose father was their commander.
We are taken to a large house built of mud and rocks in the village and sit with the squad’s commander and several fighters. A few minutes into the conversation, over glasses of steaming hot tea, a fighter pulls out a Beretta M9 pistol, used by the U.S. military. It reads “Made in the USA” and is clearly one of his most prized spoils of war.
Then, another fighter enters the room with two grenades. A third fighter walks out with a large improvised bomb made from a tank shell. We realize the house was once the militants’ bombmaking factory — not just for roadside bombs but also for suicide attacks.
“Five suicide bombers alone came from this village, and 65 residents were martyred in the fighting in the last 20 years,” said Sherinsagha Khadim, 23, another fighter.
Today, some of the fighters have returned to farming their land or have reopened their shops, they said. Others are earning money driving goods along the highway. A few dozen were called to Kabul to help secure the capital. Everyone is ready to fight again, if needed.
“We will move when we are asked,” said Noor Agha Darwesh, 25, another fighter. “Everyone has his own weapon.”
After the conversation ends, three militants walk out of the house with their AK-47 rifles. They hop onto two motorcycles, including one topped with a white Taliban flag. They drive down from the village on a rocky path and head to the highway to go on patrol.
They reach a section where the pavement appears mismatched, like an ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle piece. It’s where the squad had once detonated a bomb as a military convoy passed. The irony is not lost on them that they pummeled a vital artery the nation — and the new Taliban government — needs to resuscitate the economy.
“We were concerned that we were destroying our own country, but we had no other option,” said Khadim. “The Taliban government will rebuild it once they have settled in,” he added with confidence.
About 50 miles down the highway, we arrive at the village of Dogyon, where some of the smallest victims of the war live.
Badam Gul, a 70-year-old village elder, can’t forget the years when the Taliban, he said, used the villagers as human shields. One day, about six years ago, the Taliban stormed into his home to target the nearby Afghan police checkpoint.
“The Taliban used my home as a sanctuary and fired on the checkpoint,” recalled Gul. “In return, my house was hit, killing my son and grandson.”
Around him are several small children, all maimed by war. One boy walks on crutches because his right leg was amputated.
“A military convoy was attacked by the Taliban,” explained Gul. “The kids went there later and collected the rockets from the vehicles. They were playing with the rockets when they exploded.”
Eleven-year-old Maleeha listens to Gul speak. When she was 7, she was tending to the family’s cows and sheep with her two brothers. As they walked near a checkpoint, a roadside bomb planted by the Taliban exploded, said her father, Haji Ali Khan.
“I was with my cattle when I heard a big bang,” said Maleeha in a low, shy voice. “I didn’t know what happened then.” She’s now blind in her left eye.
We leave Dogyon and head south. The road curls through the plain, the asphalt smoother because fewer bombs, if any, exploded on this stretch. On the yawning terrain, it was hard for the militants to hide and stage attacks.
We pass trucks carrying lumber and buses packed with passengers headed to Kabul. Then an oil tanker comes, likely from Iran and Pakistan. Soon, the traffic gets heavier as we approach the bustling city of Ghazni, the capital of the province that bears the same name. Here, the sudden shift in power and authority is disrupting lives.
Mile 75 of 300
Ibrahim Salehi walks toward the Mohammad Mustafa Mosque, Ghazni’s largest Shiite center of worship. His face is etched with concern. As the imam of the mosque, he has reason to worry: The number of worshipers that attended the previous Friday prayers was 300 — half the usual crowd.
Two Shiite mosques, one in Kunduz, the other in Kandahar, were recently attacked by suicide bombers, killing scores. The Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghanistan and Pakistan branch of the Iraq- and Syria-based terrorist network, claimed responsibility.
But Salehi and other members of the Shiite Hazara ethnic minority also mistrust the Taliban. The militants have massacred Hazaras in the past and marginalized the community politically and economically, as have previous Afghan regimes.
“Following the fall of the former government, there was a slight improvement in the security situation,” said Salehi. “But with the attacks against the Hazara community and the Shiite people in Kandahar and Kunduz, we are now feeling threatened. We don’t know who our enemy is.”
The Hazara community has to depend now on the Taliban for protection, which means overcoming the past and having faith in the country’s new rulers. The militants, when they seized the province, ordered all the guards and members at 102 Shiite mosques to hand over their weapons, said Salehi. The Taliban said they would protect them. But that has not happened.
To be sure, Salehi said, he sees a “big difference between the Taliban of the past and now.” Unlike the mid-1990s when the militants first ruled, the treatment of Hazaras has improved, as the Taliban seeks to alter its global image.
But Salehi wonders how long the honeymoon period will last. He expressed concern about recent reports of forced evictions of Hazaras by Taliban loyalists.
“It makes me worry that the Taliban are going back to the 1990s,” Salehi said.
Hours later, we arrive at a large former U.S. military outpost along the highway, in the Askarkot area of Ghazni province. When American forces left, they handed it over to the Afghan National Army. In July, the Taliban seized it without much of a fight. It is now home to roughly 150 militants. They, too, were planting roadside bombs along the highway during the insurgency, their deputy commander said.
Through the gate, we pass a line of blast walls that look like tombstones. There are rows of U.S. military vehicles, some with their wheels off, apparently stripped for spare parts. In other areas of the outpost, there is a weapons armory. Fighters sleep in rooms, including one containing thick files on a shelf. The floor is covered with red carpeting, flat pillows and blankets.
The detritus of war is everywhere.
Twenty minutes later, the Taliban deputy commander, Hekmatullah Muzammil, informs us that he wants to give a statement to the world through us.
“We are asking the international community and also people of Afghanistan to help improve the economic conditions, which are very bad,” Muzammil said. His fighters stand next to him, listening to his every word.
Muzammil raises a concern expressed by some Afghans and outside analysts. Some people, he said, are worried that the cash-strapped Taliban could eventually sell weapons and military vehicles left behind or seized. Many fear that the primary buyers will be criminal gangs or regional governments such as Iran.
“We give them assurance that everything will be preserved and protected,” he said. “They should not be worried about these assets.”
Then, one more request of the international community: Please rebuild the highway they had destroyed. And also all the damaged schools and hospitals.
“The people will get benefits from these developments,” he said.
Before we leave, Muzammil tells his fighters to gather around him. He sings a Koranic prayer. The melodic sound floats through the outpost.
A few miles away, a group of teens and young men piles scrap metal used to secure Hesco barriers. A Taliban fighter watches them carefully from a chair outside a small house. Despite Muzammil’s assurance, the militants are already stripping down some former bases for profit.
Mahmoud Khan lifts a square strip of metal fencing, his face wrapped in a checkered scarf. “These are gifts from the Americans,” he said.
The Taliban fighter denied they were selling the material. A few minutes later, a potential buyer stopped to ask for a price. “I don’t know,” said one of the workers. “Go see the Taliban over there. He’ll tell you the price.”
As we drive away, a convoy of United Nations deminers passes us, underscoring the war’s unfinished business. Then emerged a convoy of the International Committee for the Red Cross, speeding in the direction of Kabul.
As we approach the border of Zabul province, a portion of the highway appears newly paved. It’s a surprise, given the road’s poor condition so far. Someone is fixing the highway, but it’s unclear who. Was this a directive from the Taliban? Or did some local officials decide to take action? And who is financing this when government salaries haven’t been paid in months?
Mile 175 of 300
We arrive in Zabul province, and the highway flattens out into desert-like terrain. Along the sides of the road, large, homemade tents appear. Children play outside or tend to goats and sheep. These are Afghanistan’s pastoral nomads known as Kuchis, who migrate from area to area every year with their animals in search of food, water and work. It’s been a difficult year.
Torjan and his large extended family had come down from the mountains with their cattle and sheep. With the lack of snow, there was no water there. But here, too, they are desperate. The ground, once flush with vegetation, now has the texture of dust. Their scrawny cattle and sheep are searching for what little growth they can find. This is their fourth day here.
“It was good last year,” said Torjan, who like many Afghans uses one name. “When we were in the mountains, there was enough grass. Now, there is nothing. Some 400 of our sheep have died in the last several months.”
Four hours earlier, his 10-year-old granddaughter, Khalozai, was hit by a car as she crossed the highway to tend to the family’s sheep. She was critically injured, Torjan said, and transported to a hospital in Kandahar.
The other children in his clan were suffering, too. There was no more milk from the sheep because of the lack of grass. Cooking oil to heat food had become expensive.
“We have nothing to feed our kids,” said Torjan. “They are just eating dry bread. The prices of basic food and cooking oil have gone up since the Taliban took over.”
They are caught in a vicious cycle of economic and climate woes. The nomads typically sell their cattle and sheep to buy food or to move. A few months ago, they could sell each sheep for $200. Now, they are lucky if they receive $30. “There is no demand,” explained Torjan.
Normally, they would remain in Zabul for some months, but time is running out. The nomads are trying to reach Helmand province, where they heard there were larger areas of grass and water, before more of their animals die and their children become hungrier and weaker.
We drive away just after the sun sets.
Back on the highway, the trucks, lights on, are still moving, determined to reach their destination. Under the previous government, nightfall meant an opportunity for militants, as well as robbers and corrupt policemen at checkpoints. Now, under Taliban rule, it has become safe to travel at night along the highway.
In the night, around dinnertime, we arrive in Qalat, Zabul’s provincial capital. In most areas of the city, there is no electricity.
The next morning, we visit the Bibi Khala girls high school and find a surprising scene: Girls above sixth grade are attending secondary school. In Kabul and most other parts of the county, the Taliban has forbidden girls older than 12 from attending classes.
“The Taliban did not create any hurdles in our way,” said Perveen Tokhi, the school’s principal. “We don’t know why they were so supportive here than in other parts of the country.”
Initially, she said, the Taliban governor ordered the school shut down. But she and the teachers protested and said they would teach without salary to keep classes going. They promised, she said, to follow Islamic principles, and the governor relented.
“I will not shut the school even if the Taliban ask me to do so,” Tokhi said. “They may shut the school only if I am dead. When I take this stand, all the teachers and students support me.”
It appears Tokhi was the key to securing continued education for older girls. She belongs to a powerful tribe, and her brother is an influential elder in the province. The local Taliban made an exception rather than get into a tribal war, underscoring how significant local relationships are in provinces.
It’s after dusk when we arrive at a truck stop on the outskirts of Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. Large 18-wheelers are lined up next to each other, waiting for the clock to strike 9 p.m. That’s when the Taliban will allow the vehicles to pass into the city, an effort to control the traffic.
Until then, truckers place rugs next to their trucks and sit to have dinner or tea. Some pray, while others head to the local stalls to buy cigarettes or snacks. An empty gas station stands forlorn.
In interviews along the highway, truckers speak of the contradiction they face: On one hand, they no longer have to pay bribes at every checkpoint run by the police of the former government.
“There were security checkpoints everywhere, and there were corruption and highhandedness at every checkpoint,” said Ahmad Hamid, 42, a truck driver for the past 20 years.
The Taliban charges them a flat fee. But the problem now is that there is far less work as a result of the sagging economy.
“The businessmen are not buying anything,” he said. “There are far fewer trucks on the road.”
Mile 275 of 300
By nightfall, we enter Kandahar.
The streetlights are not working, and the lights in homes and shops that are working are powered with solar panels. The city receives only two hours of electricity per day. The issue of supplying power has been a constant plague for the past two decades. Along the highway, we pass one of the U.S. military’s most expensive efforts in Afghanistan to produce economic growth and improve the lives of ordinary Afghans.
It, too, failed.
At a former U.S. military combat outpost known as Shorendam, 16 Caterpillar generators, each the size of a car garage, sit unoperational. The American government spent $300 million to bring electricity to Kandahar, and at one point factories around the base received power.
But as the U.S. military shrank its presence and its funding, the Afghan government was unable to afford spare parts or fuel for the generators. The plant hasn’t worked in a decade. Mechanics trained for a year by American engineers now serve as security guards.
“I haven’t been paid in two months, ever since the Taliban takeover,” said Najibullah, one of the mechanics, who said his salary was roughly $100 a month.
Outside the silent generator plant, Taliban fighters at checkpoints deal with the absence of electricity by warming themselves in front of small bonfires. They sit behind blast walls to prevent the chill wind from blowing into their bodies.
In other parts of the highway near Kandahar, a destroyed bridge is a reminder of the enormous cost of rebuilding Afghanistan after two decades of war.
Countless Afghan lives, too, need rebuilding.
At Kandahar’s Mirwais Hospital, the pediatrics ward is filled with skeletal babies suffering from acute malnutrition. As many as five children are in each bed. Others are sprawled on the floor. The waiting list to enter the ward stretches onto the lawn outside.
On some nights, as many as two or three die of hunger-related illnesses, doctors said.
“They are increasing day by day,” said Taj Mohammad Maiwandwal, the ward’s head doctor. “I have been a doctor for 11 years in the hospital, but this is the worst it has been.”
On one bed is Zaher. He is 2 years old but looks much smaller. His grandmother, Gran Bibi, said he was refusing to eat. “He was not drinking the milk of the mother, so we gave him milk of the goats,” she said. “We are poor and cannot give him food.”
The family took Zaher to doctors in their village, but his condition kept deteriorating. They were so impoverished that they couldn’t afford to pay the 10-cent fare for public transport to Kandahar. Finally, another villager helped.
Zaher’s health, she said, was improving.
In another bed is Shabnam. She’s 2 years and 3 months old, and her face is swollen. Her skin is dry and so thin that when pinched, you can see her bone. She has been like this for 15 days.
“She does not eat anything,” laments her grandmother, Pashtana.
Four months ago, her younger brother died of pneumonia induced by his acute malnutrition. The family brought him to the hospital, and he recovered. But when they returned to their village, his condition worsened, his grandmother said.
“We decided to take him back to the hospital, but the road was blocked due to the fighting,” said Pashtana. “We were unable to drive. So we returned home, and the boy died.”
A key reason for the large influx of severely malnourished children is the sudden change in power. With international financing cut due to sanctions on the Taliban and billions in Afghan assets abroad frozen, many local and foreign aid agencies abruptly stopped working in rural areas, leaving clinics unable to help.
“They cannot treat the patients,” Maiwandwal said. “There are no medicines in the district-level hospitals and clinics, so more patients are coming here. ”
As winter approaches, the U.N. has warned that a million Afghan children are “at risk of death” from severe hunger if aid doesn’t reach them. Millions more Afghans will find it difficult to find food as prices soar, the poverty rate grows and basic public services near collapse.
“For now, we have enough stock of medicines,” Maiwandwal said, his voice drowned out by the cries of sick babies. “But we don’t know about the future.”