It’s past 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and Zarifa Ghafari is running late for work. Six days a week, she commutes from her home in Kabul to Maidan Shar, the embattled capital of Wardak province, where she serves as the youngest female mayor in the country. Her office is just 30 miles southwest of the Afghan capital. But getting there requires a drive down National Highway 1, a massive U.S.-built showpiece once hailed as “the most visible sign” of America’s commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of war. Seventeen years after its completion, the highway is a glaring symbol of America’s failures, scarred with bomb-blast craters that snarl traffic and under constant attack from a resurgent Taliban. “Every time I leave home I’m thinking this trip might be the last one,” says Ghafari. “This dangerous road could decide my fate.”
On the outskirts of Kabul, we detour around a bridge that recently collapsed. The asphalt starts to fall apart, and four lanefuls of traffic are soon jockeying for position on what’s left of the two-lane highway. Ghafari’s bulletproof SUV lurches to an abrupt halt, boxed in by incoming trucks on one side and impatient southbound cars on the other: a bad situation. Her driver jumps out, AK-47 slung over his shoulder, to clear a path out of the jam, leaving the mayor unguarded.
“The Taliban like to hide and attack from the trees and homes along the road,” Ghafari says, scanning her surroundings through the bullet-riddled windows of her car. “Anything can happen here.”
Since becoming one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors, Ghafari has survived multiple assassination attempts, including one in March, when gunmen sprayed her Toyota compact with bullets in Kabul, missing her fiance’s head by inches. After months of ignored requests, an armored vehicle was provided by the cash-strapped government. “If the Taliban get the chance, definitely they will kill me,” she says. “I’m on their blacklist.”
Slight and poised, with a midnight-blue headscarf and oversize glasses, Ghafari is just 27 years old. She is a bold testament to how far Afghan women have come since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the extremist Taliban regime. As a child, she was forced to attend a secret school for girls just to get an education. In the post-Taliban era she has thrived, earning a university degree in economics and launching a U.S.-funded radio station in Wardak aimed at women. In 2018, President Ashraf Ghani chose her over 137 other candidates — all of them male — to be mayor of Maidan Shar, the seat of a strategically important province bordering Kabul where the Taliban enjoy support. “All I had was my talent and my education,” says Ghafari. “Nothing else.”
But her daily, high-stakes gamble to show up for work in a violent city so close to the Afghan capital is emblematic of a government in crisis. The Taliban now control or contest nearly half the country, including large sections of Highway 1, and are gaining ground, propelled by a February peace deal with the U.S. In exchange for a vague pledge to reduce hostilities and not harbor terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, the Trump administration committed to a full troop withdrawal by this summer. In the months since, the Taliban have ramped up their offensive. According to a U.S. government watchdog, attacks against Afghan forces and civilians surged by 50 percent in the third quarter of 2020.
In Wardak, Highway 1 — the government’s key lifeline for moving troops and trade — has been under concentrated assault. The hulks of Afghan army Humvees disfigured by roadside bombs litter the hillsides in Maidan Shar, which we finally reach more than an hour after setting off from Kabul. Construction of a new mosque and children’s “fun park” initiated by the mayor are both stalled. Passing a traffic roundabout with a giant billboard of Ghafari, we slip behind 12-foot-high concrete blast walls that entomb the government compound, and the mayor can breathe easy, for a moment.
Ghafari settles into her office and doesn’t even look up from the stack of paperwork she’s signing when the first Taliban rocket of the day thuds in the near distance. She must leave work by 3 p.m. each day to avoid traffic that could strand her on the highway after dark. Moments later there’s another explosion, closer to the compound. “There are Taliban checkpoints just a few miles from my office, but I’m safe here because of the security forces,” she says cheerfully. “They make every woman, every man around this country feel secure.”
For all her bravura, Ghafari is still a politician with an official posture to uphold. The sentiment is far different among civilians living in besieged villages along the highway, trapped between advancing militants and government forces they allege are firing indiscriminately on their homes in a desperate effort to hold the enemy back.
In the hallway outside Ghafari’s office, I’m summoned by a gray-bearded man. He leads me to a group of tribal elders from Durrani village waiting for an audience with the mayor. All of them blame government forces for reckless retaliations they say have killed loved ones in recent months.
“My wife’s body was torn to pieces,” says Mohammad Ajan, a gas seller. “I gathered all the small pieces of her flesh with my hands.”
“My son was shot in the head,” says Mohammad Anwar, one of his neighbors.
“I lost a nephew,” nods Farouq, the man who summoned me.
A soft-spoken shopkeeper named Abdul Baqi, his arm limp in a sling due to a gunshot wound, describes the latest incident. Two days earlier, his cousin’s four children were injured by an SPG-9 rocket allegedly fired by the Afghan army, “the only people who have these kind of heavy weapons,” Ajan interjects. With no decent trauma facilities in Wardak, the children were rushed to the Emergency Hospital in Kabul for surgery. Their mother, who was outside washing clothes, was killed instantly by the strike, Baqi says. “We buried her yesterday.”
Despite these tragedies, the men roundly affirmed their support for the central government even if they’d lost all faith in its ability to defend them. “How can they protect us?” says Anwar. “They can’t even protect themselves.”
Now in its 20th year, the U.S. military’s war in Afghanistan has long faded from global headlines. But when historians appraise the cost of the longest war in American history and how it all unraveled, they will inevitably talk about roads: the roughly 10,000 miles’ worth of highways and byways that were built, repaved, and repaired over hostile terrain on the far side of the world at an astronomical cost to U.S. taxpayers, at a time when aging infrastructure was falling deeper into disrepair back home.
In 2001, Afghanistan had less than 50 miles of paved roads in the entire country. A 2,000-mile “Ring Road” connecting major cities that was started by the Soviets back in the 1950s had been pulverized by decades of war and neglect. The U.S. government and its NATO partners believed that a new and improved Ring Road system, or Highway 1, would lay the groundwork for a functioning state, easing commerce and troop movements to improve security across 34 provinces while putting war-weary people back to work.
More than a third of the population live within 30 miles of the Kabul-Kandahar stretch, making it the essential artery. In a state roughly split between a Tajik, Hazara, and Turkic north, and a Pashtun-dominated south that spawned the Taliban, the 300-mile highway would help bind the fractious Afghan nation together.
How far those hopes have plunged. In August, I spent several weeks traveling Highway 1 from Kabul to Maidan Shar and parts of the Sayadabad district, the largest in Wardak province and a staging ground for militant attacks around Kabul. Over the course of hundreds of miles — and in meetings with the Taliban, government forces, and civilians caught in the crossfire — a grim truth emerged: The backbone of the U.S.-led nation-building campaign is hopelessly broken, a life-or-death gauntlet where people drive in fear, commerce is stymied, and state forces are targeted with impunity. What was intended to ease the lives of Afghans and cement the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan is, instead, a story of colossal waste and squandered opportunity.
Nearly 20 years ago, construction of the highway started with optimism and promise. In late 2002, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hired the Louis Berger Group (LBG), a New Jersey-based engineering company, to handle the project; with an end-of-2003 deadline set by the White House, the expected cost was $300 million. But the highway’s path through hard, ambush-ready badlands pushed engineers and hundreds of road workers to the limit, and made them easy targets. In a three-month period in late 2003, a Turkish LBG subcontractor was kidnapped, another was shot, and two Indian road workers were abducted; two American road superintendents survived an attack near Kandahar in which one was shot in the head. A total of 40 people died during Highway 1 construction in 2003, according to Andrew Natsios, a former USAID administrator. “We paid for the highway not just in dollars and cents, but in blood,” he writes in a history of the project. “The casualty rates were unprecedented.”
The first layer of blacktop was nonetheless completed on schedule, slashing travel time between Kabul and Kandahar from at least 18 hours down to six. At a roadside ceremony in December, Afghan President Hamid Karzai cut a ribbon with gold-plated scissors. “Today is one of the best days of our lives,” he declared. “We are rebuilding Afghanistan, bringing back to us what we all desired — like every other people in the civilized world.”
By then, however, George W. Bush’s administration was preoccupied with the war in Iraq. Seasoned officers and essential resources were diverted at a pivotal moment in the conflict. “There was a huge sucking sound as all the military talent left Afghanistan,” says a senior U.S. officer who was redeployed to Iraq. With the Taliban out of the way, there was an “opportunity to move quickly in terms of getting the Afghan government up and running in the countryside,” says Richard Boucher, a former assistant secretary of state, who formulated U.S. policy for Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. “We failed to do that in part because we focused on Iraq and in part because we had this idea that we could do all of it.”
In this security vacuum, the resurgent Taliban laid siege to the highway. Attacks on LBG road crews intensified — fueled in part, Afghan officials told me, by grievances over the company’s failure to hire local workers and consult tribal elders. In February 2004, militants shot down an LBG helicopter, killing the pilot and injuring three employees. Meanwhile, travelers were increasingly stopped at gunpoint and shaken down. State employees were often summarily executed on the roadside. The Taliban made a special effort to destroy fuel and supply trucks that serviced the main NATO military bases at Bagram and Kandahar. In one infamous 2008 attack in Ghazni province, a convoy of more than 40 trucks was blown up and left to burn. “The highway was a vehicle graveyard,” says the senior U.S. officer, who returned to Afghanistan after serving in Iraq. “We tried to send logistics guys to move all the carcasses of the dead trucks off the road as fast as possible,” but with all the fighting, “they’d sit there for months on end.”
After President Obama’s election in 2008, the spiraling Afghan war swung back into view. A troop surge that would ultimately climb to a peak of more than 100,000 U.S. service members was accompanied by an infusion of billions in funding to boost Afghan security forces. A series of Afghan National Army bases were erected along Highway 1, and motorcycle police units were created to patrol it. Taking a page out of the Iraqi insurgents’ playbook, the Taliban’s use of roadside bombs jumped 100 percent from 2008 to 2009 to become the main killer of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“They were destroying the roads, always attacking,” recalls Mohammad Halim Fidai, Wardak’s governor from 2008 to 2012. “What is the sin of the road — the road is for everyone!” When he took office, militants were setting up checkpoints on Highway 1 just 500 meters from his compound in Maidan Shar. As thousands more U.S. troops surged into the country, Fidai says, the government was able to extend its influence and enlist local men to guard and maintain roads and rebuild district centers.
Progress was fleeting. Under Obama, USAID cut funding for road construction. It also refused to fund Afghan government maintenance work, having soured on its ability to complete basic tasks. “The lack of continuity of these programs started losing the trust of the people,” says Fidai. “When you don’t support these people, they go back to the Taliban because they become jobless.” In 2012, there were more than 200 bomb attacks and 300-plus shooting incidents on Highway 1, about one for every mile of asphalt between Kabul and Kandahar. What was once hailed as the “road to Afghanistan’s future” had a new nickname: the “highway of death.”
Today the Taliban threat is at the edge of Maidan Shar. Less than two miles south of the governor’s compound, police outpost “Black Rock” is the city’s first line of defense: an overlook of concrete walls and sandbags at the mouth of Highway 1. “If the Taliban capture this post, it means they have captured the whole province of Wardak,” says Capt. Sardarwali Stanikzai, Black Rock’s commanding officer. With just 20 men armed with nothing more than Kalashnikovs and a few box-fed PK machine guns, he says his team is being picked off by American-made sniper rifles and night-vision scopes the Taliban have captured. “It would be better if the Americans were still here,” he says. “We are just like blind men fighting. We can’t see them, but they can see us.”
Stanikzai took command of the outpost after his father, a veteran police commander, was assassinated in a Taliban ambush. He says he’s lost four men since he arrived in 2019. The last was three weeks earlier, when a sniper’s bullet struck his deputy in the head; a pile of rocks marks the spot where he fell. The inner walls of the officers’ bunker are pocked with head-height bullet holes. “We try to steal a few hours of sleep in the daytime when we can, and we stay up all night on guard,” says the captain.
I follow him out to a lookout point with a panoramic view, at once pastoral and menacing. To our rear, a military-intelligence building sits pancaked from a 2019 car bombing that left more than 40 officers dead. Out front, a verdant river valley of orchards ringed by poplar trees sprawls out to the mountains. “The Taliban control all of this,” says Stanikzai, sweeping his arm. “They shoot at us from down there,” he adds, pointing to a pair of men out strolling a field, farmers most likely. I ask if he’s afraid of being overrun. “Of course!” he says. “We worry about that day and night.”
Indeed, soon after we head back to Kabul, some of his men are ambushed returning from the city center on the short, exposed section of highway between the outpost and the governor’s compound. The attack started when a roadside bomb detonated in a canal we had driven over twice that day. No one was killed, but the gun battle raged for most of an hour.
With the Taliban expanding their grip in the backcountry, the need to protect road crews under steady attack around the Ring Road drove U.S. military and CIA officers to spend more and more funds on unsavory partnerships in recent years. Warlords, government officials, religious figures, and other shady power brokers — everyone got paid in a flailing effort to bring stability. “We had partnerships with all the wrong players,” a senior U.S. diplomat told government interviewers, according to “the Afghanistan Papers,” a more than 2,000-page trove of documents published in The Washington Post that showed the mismanagement and futility of the war effort. “It’s a case of security trumping everything else,” said Douglas Lute, an Army lieutenant general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar from 2007 to 2013, telling interviewers that the U.S. dumped huge amounts of money into building dams and highways just “to show we could spend it.”
A forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012 and helped assess some 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion concluded that about 40 percent of the money ended up in the hands of Taliban insurgents, criminal groups, or crooked Afghan officials. U.S. officials were “so desperate to have the alcoholics to the table,” an unnamed State Department official said, that “we kept pouring drinks, not knowing [or] considering we were killing them.”
The Afghan sinkhole reached a staggering low with the Gardez-Khost highway, a 60-mile stretch linking the Ring Road to the eastern borderlands. The contract was turned over to LBG, and construction started in 2003. In November 2010, the federal government slapped LBG with the highest ever fine in a wartime contracting case: $18.7 million in criminal penalties and $50.6 million in civil penalties for overbilling. The company’s former CEO had pleaded guilty in 2014 to defrauding U.S. taxpayers of tens of millions. But the project dragged on, unchecked. By the time the road opened, in 2015, costs had ballooned to nearly $5 million a mile, and it became a never-ending boondoggle. A whistleblower later revealed that LBG had, through dubious methods, paid insurgents not to attack the project. More than 200 gold-star families have since filed a lawsuit against LBG and other defense contractors, alleging these kinds of protection payments “aided and abetted terrorism by directly funding an al-Qaeda-backed Taliban insurgency that killed and injured thousands of Americans.” (The case is still in court.)
In 2016, the special inspector general for Afghanistan (SIGAR), the government watchdog agency that provides quarterly audits to Congress, published a report on the dismal state of Afghanistan’s roads. Some 95 percent of the Highway 1 sections it inspected were either damaged or destroyed; the Kabul-Kandahar section was “beyond repair” and needed “to be rebuilt,” the report noted, warning that “if the road becomes impassable, the central government will collapse.”
It’s hard to fathom a lower return on investment. According to an October 2020 audit report, the U.S. has spent nearly $134 billion overall on Afghan reconstruction since 2001 — far more than it did rebuilding 16 European countries after World War II. Of the $63 billion reviewed by SIGAR, about 30 percent, or some $19 billion, was “lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.”
In hindsight, some former U.S. officials say that instead of flooding the country with reconstruction aid and contractors, a greater effort should have been made to build up the capacity of Afghan institutions and secure more buy-in from the public. “Afghanistan never had a government that was capable of serving the people,” says Boucher. “It didn’t matter how much we spent: Unless we built the capabilities of the Afghan government to deliver benefits to the people, we weren’t gonna get stability out of it. We were spending money through a broken vessel.”
Beyond the blast walls of Stanikzai’s outpost, Highway 1 carves its way through the hardscrabble farming villages, plains, and mountains of what is now undisputed Taliban country. Two-hundred meters down the road, the first bomb crater blisters the pavement; we count 19 in a single 30-mile stretch. In some places we are forced to slalom between yawning pits that could swallow our car. At least there’s no traffic to contend with.
Photographer Andrew Quilty, filmmaker Mark Oltmanns, and I are squeezed in the back of a beat up Corolla, wearing traditional dress; our translator, Ahmad, sits in front. All of us are on the lookout for Taliban checkpoints that are known to appear out of nowhere and wary of the unexploded bombs that seed the highway. We’re driving to the Afghan army command about 25 miles south of Maidan Shar. The army outposts that crop up every few miles are a jumble of razor wire and Hesco barriers. Some are abandoned. The odd Afghan flag signals where troops are still hunkered down, though no one is visible.
An hour later we pull into a large base that’s built like a maze, spiraling inward to the headquarters, where the commander of the Afghan Army’s 5th Brigade in Wardak, Col. Hamidullah Kohdamani, is surprised — and a little troubled — to see us. Calling on traditional Afghan hospitality, we’ve given him no choice but to host us for the night.
“Since earlier this year, the enemy has stepped up their attacks,” the colonel explains, “so they can say, ‘We are powerful, we can make this situation worse for you.’ ” Drawing a line in the dirt with his boot, he shows me where his troops are massed along the highway, near a notorious insurgent stronghold that U.S. and Afghan forces had both long forsaken to the Taliban. From this base, he says, militants are launching bolder, more frequent attacks on the highway and Kabul. The colonel insists he has a plan to retake the valley when the weather cools down. “The Taliban are afraid of us — they are fighting like thieves,” he adds, with a nervous smile that betrays a lack of conviction.
A radio crackles. There are reports of enemy movement in a wooded area to the south, where the Taliban build roadside bombs, or IEDs, and the colonel gives the order for an artillery strike. I tell him about the villagers I’ve met who allege their relatives were killed by errant shells. How can he be sure no civilians are in harm’s way?
“No, no — it’s not a civilian area!” he says, assuring me intelligence is coming from assets on the ground. “We are constantly firing in that area, and, as I have witnessed, no civilians have ever been harmed; we are making maximum effort not to harm civilians.” Suddenly, though, Kohdamani seems unsure. Without explanation, he instructs his gunner to shift the barrel 90 degrees to a bald ridge on the far side of the highway. No threat is imminent; we’re only told the base takes occasional rocket fire from that direction. The shell smashes into the mountain — a completely arbitrary show of force that, hopefully, has done nothing more than break the midday quiet.
Afghanistan remains one of the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian. To date, more than 43,000 people have died in the conflict. According to the U.N., the number of killed and wounded exceeded 10,000 each year from 2014 to 2019, with some 6,000 casualties in the first nine months of 2020. The Taliban were responsible for about half the deaths, while government troops caused almost a quarter — mostly in ground-fighting attacks like the one that very nearly played out in front of us. (Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire or were caused by ISIS or undetermined elements. U.S.-led -forces were responsible for two percent.)
The colonel disappears for the night, and a promised patrol along the highway never materializes. A lanky sergeant named Waheed Jan informs us that the district center 35 miles away is under attack and two soldiers are critically injured from a mine blast. That evening, I listen in as a radio operator tries in vain to summon a medevac from Kabul; 10 hours after they were hit, one of the men dies from excessive blood loss, and the other is still waiting for a chopper. Meanwhile, a vehicle convoy dispatched to provide support is stuck on the highway battling a Taliban ambush. “The truth is we’re taking a lot of casualties here, and our [command] does not share it with the media,” says Jan. He later confides that he, too, was recovering from an IED blast on the highway.
Under the circumstances, the sergeant says it could take several days to arrange an Afghan army convoy back to Kabul. Given the high likelihood of being blown up in their company, we take our chances in the morning and drive back on our own, falling silent over gravel patches and irrigation canals where bombs are easily placed. The only trouble we encounter is from the Afghan army command, which detains us for questioning at their base in Maidan Shar.
“You did not receive permission — you broke the rules,” barks a gruff military intelligence officer who drove down from Kabul to check us out. Eventually we are allowed to leave, with a stern warning from the security forces not to defy the rules again. We had clearly glimpsed the underbelly of a losing war that the Afghan government didn’t want us to see.
The Taliban’s chokehold on Highway 1 is putting further strain on an economy already depressed by decades of war and the Covid-19 pandemic. Ali Ahmad, a potbellied driver waiting roadside at the Kabul gate to have his cargo of potatoes inspected one afternoon, remembers driving the road 22 years ago during the Taliban days, when it was nothing but a dirt track. It was “rough but secure,” he says. “You could sleep next to the road, no problem.” The U.S.-built highway was better, but security grew worse each year. “Now, it’s back to the same it was before: full of danger, bombs everywhere,” he adds. “There are bombs right here!” Indeed, that morning, a Taliban car bomb had crashed into the Afghan army checkpoint and killed several officers, stalling Ahmad’s journey indefinitely.
Ahmad says the Taliban exacted a one-time toll of 6,000 Afghanis ($75). Afghan forces were worse,demanding between 1,000 to 3,000 Afghanis ($12 to $37) at each checkpoint, 12 tolls in all. Ahmad says the combination of bad roads, excessive stoppages, and fighting en route had turned a two-day trip into six days and counting. In the past, this had caused vegetable cargo to rot, at a loss of even more money. “Pakistan and Iran have stronger economies because they built a good road system,” he says. “We are struggling to survive.” As dusk falls, gunfire starts to ring out in the background.
Since taking office, Mayor Ghafari has pushed hard to project a presence in Maidan Shar: renovations to the market center, better road maintenance, and a “Clean City, Green City” anti-trash campaign. But creeping insecurity is confining her to government-in-a-box. “Sometimes I feel like I am living between two rooms: my office and my home,” she tells me. The last time she went out into the street to stop an illegal construction project, she got a call from a senior government official warning her not to leave the office again. After firing several subordinates in October for corruption, she received death threats. Then came another assassination attempt — this time on Highway 1. Three men dressed in army uniforms opened fire on her car as it sped away.
Several weeks later, her father, an Afghan army colonel and lifelong inspiration, was gunned down in front of his home in Kabul. “He was a superhero soldier who served his country for 36 years,” she says. Though no one has claimed responsibility, Ghafari believes the Taliban killed him to punish her. “They tried two times to kill me, but they failed, so they found a different way to hurt me,” she says.
The loss has shaken her like nothing before. Without her father, she says, she would have been unable to endure all the constant threats and sense of -betrayal she felt after the U.S. made a deal with the Taliban that had no guarantees for the rights of women. “They want to shut me down,” she says, “but they can’t silence me. I love my job — being on the front line, fighting for women’s rights, making people believe in our power and our presence,” she goes on. “I’m risking my life, every drop of my blood, for my country and my people.” No matter what happens with the Taliban, “we will not go back.”
Unlike the Afghan army, the Taliban have agreed to receive us in their Wardak stronghold, the Tangi Valley. The promise of safe passage makes the trip only slightly less nerve-racking than previous drives. We pass an Afghan-army convoy that appears to have just emerged from a gunfight, its windows shattered. A soldier manning one of the turret guns is soaked in sweat. He throws me a fierce glare.
We pass Kohdamani’s sprawling base and turn east into the valley. Remnants of old concrete blast walls remind us that not long ago U.S. troops fought hard to purge the Taliban from the area. In 2011, Tangi was the site of the deadliest attack endured by U.S. forces in the war, when a pair of Chinook helicopters were shot down, killing 38 people aboard, including 17 Navy SEALs. Within months of handing the outpost over to the Afghan army, it was abandoned altogether. Today, Taliban control is total.
Winding through low-slung adobe warrens and thick apple orchards, we pull into a derelict village called Qala Amir, where men are shoveling mud after a flash flood. No women are in sight. A Taliban minder clutching a walkie-talkie greets us and says we’re free to talk to anybody. Locals are understandably tight-lipped and on message, praising the Taliban for protecting their women and Quran while blaming U.S. forces for killing loved ones and leaving no improvements. “There was fighting every day,” says a shopkeeper named Talib Jan, who says his son was crippled by an explosion. “The U.S. did nothing for us, other than build this road, absolutely nothing.”
The Taliban commander, named Tawakul, arrives with a detail of gunmen. He says he fought for years to purge U.S. and Afghan forces from the valley, but it looks like his guerrilla days are behind him. Fat, with a reddish beard and a gold watch, he says his men are able to move more freely since the peace pact with the U.S., though a drone struck the day before in a nearby valley. We sit down in the shade of an apple grove, and, flanked by fighters with long permed hair and kohl-ringed eyes, he boasts rapid-fire about the Taliban’s growing strength in Wardak. “The Islamic Emirate of the Taliban now control the Kabul-Kandahar highway. Before, there were checkpoints every kilometer, but these have been cleared,” he says. “Our mines are very effective — every night at least 10 or 20 soldiers are killed.” His math was inflated, but the gist of what he says is true.
The commander was unapologetic about the rising violence. Government forces are “infidels” who deserve to be killed for not accepting an Islamic system, he asserts. I counter that a lot of civilians were dying as well, and that the Taliban are the main culprit. He insists the Taliban do not kill civilians “at all.” I list some recent examples and he grows defensive. “The government and the U.S. do these things on purpose to blame the Taliban,” he says.
When I ask about the future of women’s rights if the Taliban come to power, he says Islamic scholars would set policy and strict Sharia law would be restored. Pressed on whether women would be allowed in government, he snaps: “If Sharia does not allow it, neither will we.”
I tell him there’s a debate in the U.S. between those who think U.S. forces should stay in Afghanistan to manage counterterrorism operations and those who say it’s time to leave for good. “As long as they are here, we will fight them until our blood runs dry — 10, 20, 1,000 years — we’ll never get tired of fighting,” he says. “Russia was defeated here. They should not have come. The reason the U.S. lost is because they did not learn from them. So we humiliated and defeated them.”
To make his point, Tawakul takes us up to the site of the former U.S. Army outpost, COP Tangi. A few concrete blast walls are all that remain on the dust-blown plateau. “The Americans did their best here,” the commander says. “But all their best efforts failed. So you have to question their ability. This was what the so-called superpower was able to accomplish.”
More than an hour after leaving the Taliban in Tangi, the skies are an ashen gray as we near the Kabul gates. Whoomp. Up on a promontory to our left, a rocket crashes into an Afghan army outpost: The Taliban are attacking again. When we reach the main checkpoint, soldiers are scrambling to assist their besieged comrades. A streak of Humvees rips away, roof gunners cocking their .50-caliber machine guns. We jump out, hoping to catch a ride to the fight. Three officers cut us off, in a wild-eyed fury. “[The Taliban] are killing our brothers,” one shouts at our translator, “and you bring foreigners to watch.” I step back, thinking he might throw a punch. “All of you — get the hell out of here right now!” Reluctantly, we get back in our car and drive on to Kabul, the gun battle fading behind us.
The bloodshed is not likely to end anytime soon. Intra-Afghan talks are faltering, and the Taliban are gaining on the battlefield. Some Afghans cling to the hope that the Biden administration will follow a more conditions-based approach to U.S. withdrawal. Biden has promised to end America’s “forever wars” and was against Obama’s surge, but U.N. and Afghan officials say the Taliban actively maintain their alliance with Al Qaeda, in violation of the peace deal. Without an enduring U.S. presence, many predict that talks will collapse and that the country could once again plunge into chaos, as it did when the Soviet army departed. “If we see a total disengagement of the international community, the naturally ensuing result will be a state of civil war,” says Davood Moradian, the director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. The Taliban, he says, would be just one of many warring factions. “We have already seen this reality in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.”
On our last trip to Maidan Shar, we join Stanikzai and his men at their upper post, overlooking Highway 1. The previous evening, another police outpost inside the city was overrun by the Taliban. Five officers died in a hail of gunfire, and everyone is on edge. “We are like prisoners here — we must guard our positions until dawn,” says the captain. The sun dips behind the purple mountains across the valley, and the insurgent chatter picks up on the radio. One by one, headlights from Taliban motorbikes begin trickling down into the valley. It’s not long before bursts of gunfire crackle in the darkness. The captain is chain-smoking, worried his post will be next.
Just before midnight, a group of patrol officers crashes our camp with a surprise morale boost: a Soviet-made DShK heavy machine gun, the kind of fuck-off weapon that makes a would-be attacker think twice. “We bought this gun with our own money,” says Omidullah, the ranking officer, with a mix of pride and sadness. “The government gives us nothing,” Stanikzai affirms.
The gun is set on a tripod and an officer blasts a volley of deafening, belt-fed rounds in the direction of the motorbikes: a gesture more akin to chest-thumping than targeting the enemy in earnest.
“This outpost is our responsibility,” Omidullah says. “Beyond this point the government is powerless.” He still has shrapnel in his leg from a bomb blast a week prior. It happened on the highway, a few hundred meters from our position, one of four IEDs he has survived. “The Taliban stole our youth, our bodies, everything,” he says. “Even with peace they’ll still be our enemy.” After a long pause, he adds, “After peace, we’ll fight them on our own.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Quilty.