How the US failed to rebuild Afghanistan

It runs from the capital, Kabul, to the second biggest city, Kandahar.

It was the cornerstone of the US strategy to rebuild Afghanistan after the invasion in 2001.

It cost over $200 million to build and hundreds of lives were lost defending it.

Despite all that the Kabul to Kandahar Highway, today, is broken.

A 2016 audit report found that the road was

and if it becomes impassable...

To understand how a road this significant and this costly can be falling apart, you

have to ask: Where did the US go wrong in Afghanistan?

Just weeks after 9/11, the US invaded Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda planned the attacks.

They were sheltered by the Taliban, who controlled the Afghan government at the time.

Both groups were driven out of Kabul in a matter of months, so the US strategy soon

shifted from combat, to stabilizing and rebuilding the country.

But Afghanistan is a difficult place to control and rebuild.

It’s mountainous, and mostly rural.

The population is fractured among several ethnic groups and local communities often

operated autonomously.

To make matters worse, there were only 50 kilometers of paved roads in 2002, which meant

most of these communities were isolated.

The US decided to change that by rebuilding The Ring Road that was partially built by

the Soviet Union in the 60s but had been destroyed by decades of war.

Starting with the Kabul to Kandahar section, the US and several other countries pledged

$1.5 Billion dollars to the Ring Road.

It would run in a 3,200 kilometer loop, connecting Afghanistan’s 4 biggest cities - essentially

tying these communities together.

And it was showing promise: Trade circulated through more places, and medical services

reached more people.

It gave the new government in Kabul more legitimacy around the country.

The Ring Road also allowed the US and NATO military to send troops and supplies around

the country faster, so they could keep the Taliban in check.

“Where the roads end in Afghanistan, the Taliban begin."

"In other words, roads promote enterprise."

"Enterprise provides hope."

"Hope is what defeats this ideology of darkness."

But the US didn’t finish the job.

In 2003, the US invaded Iraq.

And Afghanistan become second priority.

Funding, reconstruction, resources, and experienced leadership, including generals and diplomats

were all diverted to the war in Iraq.

The Ring Road was far from complete yet reconstruction funding was cut by $1.2 billion a few years later.

The US preoccupation with Iraq gave the Taliban an opening to return, and they seized it.

When you look at the Taliban activity in the region from 2004 through 2009, you can see

it escalate.

Draw the Ring Road, and you can see where those activities are concentrated.

They set up ambushes, laid roadside bombs, took hostages, killed US soldiers and road

construction crews.

By 2008, the Taliban had taken back significant territory, especially in the south and east,

along the Kabul to Kandahar highway.

Afghanistan was in a full-blown insurgency.

"Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards."

"There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum."

"In short, the status quo is not sustainable."

In 2009, President Barack Obama decided to recommit to the war in Afghanistan.

He sent thousands of troops in what was called The Surge.

The US and NATO made some progress in the south.

But it quickly became clear that the Taliban would not be easily defeated.

The more troops deployed to Afghanistan, the more the Taliban launched attacks.

With the military struggling to clear territory, it became nearly impossible to rebuild roads,

as the Taliban continued to attack road-crews.

The degraded security environment has made this

the most dangerous project our company has attempted. 21 killed. 51 wounded. And 4 missing.

This forced construction companies to hire security,

which caused budgets to skyrocket.

Like this road from Khost to Pakitia, which cost almost $5M per mile mostly because of security.

But 18 months later, time was up.

President Obama announced that he’d start bringing troops back.

"After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home

at a steady pace, as Afghan security

forces move into the lead.

Our mission will change from combat to support.

As US troops withdrew, they left behind oversight of infrastructure projects, including roads.

In 2012, USAID, cut funding for road construction.

And even after the US and partnering countries spent $3 Billion dollars on it, the Ring road

was never completed.

Road-building and maintenance became the responsibility of the Afghan government,

which was crippled

by corruption.

Experts estimate that billions of dollars have been lost to corruption in Afghanistan.

In 2015, with only about 11,000 US troops in country, mostly in the major cities, the

Taliban swept back through Afghanistan.

In 2017, they controlled almost half the country -- that’s more territory than they’ve

had since 2001.

And that includess large sections of the Ring Road.

And that’s one of the main reasons why the road is in dire shape.

According to a 2016 inspection

The US has no plans to give rebuilding Afghanistan a third chance.

In 2017, President Trump committed more troops but made it very clear:

“We are not nation-building again."

"We are killing terrorists.“

As the Ring Road continues to deteriorate, it's no longer a symbol of the US efforts

to rebuild Afghanistan, instead it serves as a reminder of the job that was never finished.