Editor’s note, September 2021: On 2015 GroundTruth returned to Afghanistan to assess the state of what at the time was already America’s longest war from the perspective of U.S. soldiers and regular Afghans. The project, co-published with the Atlantic, remains relevant to this day, as it provides clues to what ultimately became an unwinnable war with a chaotic end.

The ‘Ring Road’ encircles the heart of Afghanistan.

This stretch of 1,300 miles of embattled and poorly maintained highway costed more than $3 billion in foreign aid to rebuild, along with many hundreds of lives in bombings, ambushes and preventable traffic fatalities.

Two-thirds of the country lives within 20 miles of this two-lane road, which connects 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces — its influence on the country’s economic and political future is undeniable. At every turn, the ‘Ring Road’ provides an apt metaphor for the country’s cyclical conflict, a contested arc of history curving through a land that has long resisted foreign occupation.

In the first light of morning in early April, a crush of packed buses, honking taxis and three-wheeled flatbed trucks straining with stacks of hay clogged the highway in the city center of Mazar, long a strategic crossroads coveted by warlords and empires. Old men on rickety bicycles shared a crumbling, gravel shoulder alongside young men on loud motorcycles. Roadside tea shops did brisk business and young boys waded through the traffic to sell smoldering incense intended to ward off evil spirits.

Past the city checkpoints manned by Afghan police, heading toward the Qala-i-Jangi fortress, site of the first American casualty in the Afghan War, the highway began to open up. Brightly painted “jingle trucks” barreled along loaded with produce and petrol on their way to and from a prosperous import-export market at the border of Uzbekistan.

It’s along this road pocked by craters from roadside bombs, and in some places still unfinished, that the US military will have to navigate its way to ending America’s longest war — if it can.

Despite a flag-lowering ceremony on New Year’s Day marking the end of the NATO military operation in Afghanistan, the troop presence persists.

In March, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani came to Washington and convinced President Obama to postpone his plan to cut the US troop presence nearly in half this year, and pull out completely by the end of 2016. Now it appears that exit strategy will be pushed back by at least a year.

The Afghan government claims that the Taliban insurgency is intent on returning to power and the self-proclaimed Islamic State is starting to metastasize inside Afghanistan, just as it did in Iraq. It appears that Obama wants to avoid repeating what happened when he withdrew troops from Iraq: the resulting vacuum was filled by ISIS.

The GroundTruth Project put a team of journalists out on this road to understand what to many feels like a war that will last forever.

Photographer Ben Brody has been capturing images along the road for the last four years, mostly focusing on the US military handover to Afghan National Army troops. His photographs capture the absurdity of the US presence here, the jagged and cynical edge of a war-weary country that cannot seem to find the end of the road in Afghanistan.

Documentary producer Beth Murphy traveled extensively to Afghanistan to document life inside a single girls’ school. Through immersive reporting, Murphy has gotten to know the girls and the teachers and the founder of the school. She’s managed to capture both the challenges and changes that girls’ education has brought to the village of Deh’Subz, where life is precarious. As the founder of the school Razia Jan puts it, “No one knows what tomorrow brings.”

And writer and reporter Jean MacKenzie explored the lives of Afghan millennials who are changing their country. The Pew Research Center defines “millennial” as anyone born after 1980. In Afghanistan, this has special significance — the Soviet Union invaded the country in December 1979, so Afghan millennials have lived through decades of war.

After the Soviets were defeated by the US-backed mujahideen, the country plunged into civil war. In 1996, the country fell under the control of the Taliban, suffering for five long years until the attacks of September 11, 2001. That led to the US invasion and the drawn-out conflict of the last 14 years.

MacKenzie spent time with these young leaders — teachers, writers, government officials, entrepreneurs, soldiers and parents — and came away hopeful about their growing roles serving their own country. They offer a glint of optimism along the road where empires have learned hard lessons for generations — and where the US appears to have learned very little.

– Charles Sennott