Hope and Despair in the Taliban’s Heartlands

On the U.S.-built highway that connects Kabul to southern Afghanistan, civilians and former insurgents struggle to adjust to peacetime life

Hope and Despair in the Taliban’s Heartlands
A truck drives along a stretch of Highway One the Kabul-Kandahar highway on the outskirts of Kabul on September 13, 2008 / Massoud Hossaini / AFP via Getty Images

This “Letter from Kabul” is part of a new offering by New Lines. Our contributors provide their own unique glimpses into life on the ground in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Today’s segment takes us on a journey along the highway connecting Kabul to Taliban’s heartland in the south of the country.

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For the last 20 years, the highway that connects Kabul to southwest Afghanistan has been one of the most dangerous roads in the country. Several weeks ago I drove down it, past bomb craters, destroyed bridges and abandoned checkpoints, to see how civilians and former insurgents along the route are adjusting to peacetime life. Over the course of the journey, I encountered anger, suspicion, exhaustion and despair, as well as a few glimmers of hope.

The highway is part of a ring road system that runs south from Kabul to the Taliban’s spiritual home of Kandahar, before looping west through Helmand and winding north to the city of Herat, near the border with Iran. The section of the road that connects Kabul to Kandahar was built by U.S. engineers in the 1960s, when the Cold War was at its height and Washington and Moscow were competing for strategic influence in Afghanistan. The Soviets built the section from Kandahar to Herat. In 2002, the U.S. began to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on reconstructing the road, with the help of money from Saudi Arabia and Japan. The first American ambassador to Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era, Robert P. Finn, said the project would encourage “a more prosperous and safer tomorrow.” Instead, the road became an easy target for insurgent attacks.

I had last used the highway in 2014, when I traveled with some trepidation on a bus that hurtled south at breakneck speed. This time I was accompanied by two friends and, with the Taliban in government and the war over, I knew my journey would be relatively safe. Our plan was to travel the ring road, before taking a detour into Nimroz in the southwest corner of Afghanistan.

We left Kabul in our Toyota Corolla at 6 a.m. and found ourselves surrounded by the fields and villages of Maidan Wardak province as the sun rose above the mountains. In the small market town of Salar, one man told me that local people had spent years avoiding a side road near the highway after dark as both the Taliban and the security forces of the previous government used to open fire on them if they ventured too close to it. Now there were signs of life, with farmers in the surrounding fields again and shops doing a brisk trade in the main bazaar.

As we drove through Wardak into Ghazni province we passed checkpoints abandoned last summer by the retreating Afghan army and police. The Taliban had left them empty and made little visible effort to patrol the highway for much of our journey. Despite its importance to commercial and civilian traffic, there were also very few designated rest stops for travelers to refresh or relieve themselves. While we were able to improvise, women using this same route must face acute discomfort when they want a break. They are expected to behave with extreme modesty in public, but are denied even basic facilities to wash or go to the toilet on journeys that take hours. Given the suffering Afghans in the south have endured over the last 20 years, it is a minor problem, yet the issue is indicative of a deeper and more troubling injustice that cannot be solely blamed on the Taliban.

Between Ghazni and the next province, Zabul, we saw engineering teams at work repairing parts of the highway. As well as bomb damage, large sections of the road’s surface had been been left cracked and broken by a combination of high summer temperatures and overloaded freight trucks. The highway is wide and meanders south in long straight sections and gentle bends that should not pose much of a challenge for drivers, but the poor conditions mean fatal traffic accidents are all too common.

We reached the outskirts of Kandahar at around 7 p.m. and found armed Taliban searching cars as they entered the city. Some of the Taliban were dressed in civilian clothes, others in uniform. At one checkpoint Talib asked us about an attack by the Islamic State group in Kabul earlier that month. At another checkpoint a younger Talib spoke of his displeasure with “the people in Kabul” — a reference to the former government of Ashraf Ghani that nevertheless hinted at the Taliban’s broader mistrust of Afghans in the relatively liberal capital.

We spent one night in Kandahar, then followed the ring road west. Several buildings were riddled with bullet holes on the edge of the city. As the road passed between pomegranate orchards, a farmer told us that his harvest had been hit hard by a nationwide drought and the deteriorating economic situation. Afghans could not afford to buy as much fruit as usual, he explained, and exports were down due to the fact that the border with Pakistan was now often closed.

The war damage increased as we headed towards Helmand, with old checkpoints and government buildings all badly scarred. When we reached Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, a former government employee told us that many families had been displaced on multiple occasions during the war, moving from district to district to keep one step ahead of the fighting. A teacher I spoke to said that some households in Kandahar had sheltered up to five families from Helmand at any one time.

Security across the south has improved significantly since the Taliban’s victory, but people are still suffering. The teacher in Helmand had not been paid for four months, leaving him struggling even to afford basic commodities like fuel for his motorbike. Across Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz, the Taliban have allowed girls and women to attend madrassas but forbidden them from going to high school or university. All of this has left millions of Afghans with a rare glimpse of peace yet without the means and rights to make the most of its opportunities.

When we left the ring road and drove deep into Nimroz, the last stop on our journey, the poverty and desperation was obvious. For years Afghans from across the country have been traveling here on their way to Iran. The Taliban’s victory has only intensified the exodus. But while senior officials from the old government are rumored to have escaped the country via Nimroz’s border crossing, not everyone has been so lucky. A shopkeeper at the frontier told me that hundreds of Afghans are deported back from Iran every day — their dreams of a better life lost in the dust.

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