Published November 28, 2011
Inked against the sepia fields of November, the village orchards stand dormant, woozy from recent rain. All is quiet. The war here is postponed until after the blooming of almonds but before the harvesting of pomegranates, because the motorcycles of the local Taliban elder cannot negotiate Karaghuzhlah's viscous winter roads.
The elder's name is Gul Ahmad, though they call him Mullah Zamir. He winters in Pakistan. But when he returns to Balkh province next summer, 20 or perhaps 40 riders will come with him, demanding tithes and sowing fear beneath the palisade of mulberry limbs that shades Karaghuzhlah's crooked mud-walled streets and irrigation canals. The village arbaki -- 30 or so untrained minutemen armed, with the blessing of a U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency program, with Kalashnikov rifles -- will be ready to defend the village. There will be war. It is certain. So says one of the militia commanders, whose name is Jan Mohammad, though they call him Janni.
"In the winter we have peace and in the summer we have war," Janni tells me over a cup of green tea at a friend's house. Because it is winter -- a heavy snowfall and two weeks of subsequent rain have reduced the unpaved desert roads to a morass of ankle-deep, sloughy goo -- we can kick back, stretch out on our thin mattresses, trade shucked almonds and cigarettes. We can muse about the strange nature of the war that is gnawing northern Afghanistan: war that may be intangible to the NATO troops who have spent a decade fighting it, but that to the Afghans who live here is predictably seasonal, like sowing winter wheat in the fall, say, or spreading freshly-picked almonds to dry on clay stoops in unsparing summer sun.
Seasonal warfare here predates the Taliban, the anti-Soviet mujaheddin's spring offensives of the 1980s, the 19th-century blitzes against the British Raj by guerrillas wielding jezail matchlocks. Year after year, the people somehow pick their way past pendular swings of immemorial, internecine violence. They hold their breath when the fighting escalates, exhale when it quiets down. Even now, 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion, they do so with little outside help. The billions of dollars of international aid barely trickle through to rural Afghanistan, and the NATO counterinsurgency operations focus mostly on the country's south and east. The way the people adjust to the idiosyncrasies of the latest iteration of violence can be regarded as resignation. But I think it's grace.
Near the Taliban stronghold of Char Bolagh -- no fighting there since October, a provincial police spokesman informs me -- fog clings to the thorny gnarls of unharvested cotton along a paved stretch of the ancient Silk Road like tufts of cotton. Women head to bazaar each Monday in horse-drawn buggies, erect and stern in their veils. At a police checkpoint beneath the ancient walls of Balkh, the city despoiled first by Alexander the Great and then by Genghis Khan, a man in a soiled shalwar kameez leads a stately camel caravan laden with wooden ploughs over speed bumps fashioned from the treads of Soviet tanks. Beside the exoskeleton of an armored personnel carrier -- who killed and died in it, in which war? -- a farmer's sons stoop to pick cauliflower from a field of pale, waxy green.
"News?" the elder of Oqa, a tiny desert hamlet, asks me when I drop by for the first time since summer. He says he is 70 years old; he said he was 70 years old when we first met, almost two years ago. "We never have any news. The war comes and goes, and we live here." Then he pushes toward me a hot loaf his wife has just baked with onions and sheep fat, rinses out my cup with a splash of hot tea: "Please eat. You must be tired from the road."
Weather patterns in northern Afghanistan differ, and so does the war's schedule. One hundred and twenty miles to the west of Karaghuzhlah, in Faryab province, the bloodsoaked expanse of Dasht-e-Leili has blotted up the rainwater completely. The desert slithers over itself in airborne slipstreams of sand that drift from the fabled Kara Kum several inches off the ground, continuous, defying gravity. Here, after two weeks of soggy quiet, the war once again is in full swing. On Sunday, the Taliban killed a police chief in Qaramqol, a town of about 50,000 plum farmers. On Monday, the Taliban killed a soldier in Juma Bazaar, farther south.
"The sky clears up and they start fighting," Sadiq Bigzada, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Afghan police, tells me in Faryab's second-largest city, Andkhoi. His eyes are bloodshot. The Qaramqol police chief was his best friend, and he has just returned from the funeral.
I have spent much of this year in the thirsty villages of Afghanistan's north, researching a book on timelessness. As the year waxed on so did the violence. By the end of the summer, Taliban insurgents had quietly taken over most of rural Balkh, once considered the safest province in all of Afghanistan. The last time I visited Karaghuzhlah, during the scorching Ramadan fast in August, the Taliban had just claimed ownership of the village. The villagers spoke to me reluctantly then of the fear that hung over their cob compounds like fine desert dust, and urged me to leave quickly.
I returned to the village last week. Because my car, like Mullah Zamir's motorcycles, could not handle the mud, I walked.
It was dusk. Dogs barked at the approaching night; boys whipped the last sheep through sheet-metal gates. Men pressed their palms to their chests in greeting and smiled. A swollen Venus hung over the distant silhouette of the Hindu Kush. At a village elder's mud-walled guestroom crisscrossed with horizontal smears of smoke from bukhari and cigarettes, after dinner of lamb, rice, and fresh yogurt, I fell asleep to the men's soft Farsi gossip, to the stars' eternal lullabies.
I woke up before dawn because it was raining, again. Rainwater gathered into rivulets and freshets, staving off the return of the Taliban, erasing the last of the year's iniquities so that they can be written anew upon the freshly scoured Bactrian sands. I thought I could hear the first shoots of winter wheat waking up in the drenched desert: the inexorable promise of another season of life, and war, approaching.