Following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan had less than 50 miles of paved roads in the entire country. A 2,000-mile “Ring Road” connecting major cities that was built in the 1950s had been pulverized by decades of war and neglect. Confident that it would become the backbone of a functioning state, the U.S. government and its NATO partners invested billions in a new and improved Ring Road system, or Highway 1, to ease trade and reinforce government control across 34 provinces. Instead, the Ring Road became the defining crucible of the war: a deadly gauntlet where thousands of Afghan forces and civilians perished, commerce was stymied, and reconstruction funds were stolen with impunity.
Twenty years later, U.S. forces are gone but the Ring Road endures – a symbol of foreign occupation tainted by graft and squandered opportunity, but also a pathway to explore the depths and contradictions of a new Taliban government that is struggling to rule a broken, war-weary nation. The road’s course – linking six major cities with the impoverished backcountry – offers a natural conduit to survey the impact of a two decades-long U.S. military campaign on the land and its people, how a stark urban-rural divide fueled the Taliban insurgency, and the interplay between ultra-conservative and more moderate currents within the Taliban, an ideological tension that will impact the lives of millions of Afghans.