One night two months ago, Taliban insurgents on motorcycles crossed a tract of dun Bactrian desert north of Mazar-e-Sharif. Under moonlight sifting through the thatch of warped mulberry limbs, they steered through the ancient village of Karaghuzhlah, dismounted at a simple mud-brick mosque, and handed the mullah two identical letters. The letters announced that the village now belonged to the Taliban, and demanded the payment of zakat, a religious tax to underwrite the militia's holy war.
A few days later, apparently to reinforce the message, Taliban fighters fired several rockets at a police checkpoint on the southeastern outskirts of the village. Around the same time, the Taliban began to switch off the local cell-phone towers every night. From 6 p.m. until dawn, no one could call for help.
"Karaghuzhlah is now in Taliban's hands," a district police official told me then.
In the last year, the Taliban have claimed control over scores of settlements in Balkh province, an alkaline scar tissue of dozens of fratricides, ethnic cleansings, and invasions that curves northward from the sawtooth Hindu Kush. But what does it mean for a village to have fallen into the hands of the insurgency? Does the Taliban deliver any comfort to the Pashtuns, a minority among local minorities here that often sees the mostly Pashtun militants as its only chance at protection from the dominant Uzbeks and Tajiks? Does it devastate the Hazaras, who survived waves of genocidal campaigns when the Taliban were in power? Does it make it even harder for the village sick to receive medical help, or does it facilitate treatment?
Does it mean anything at all?
I headed to Karaghuzhlah to find out. Policemen who guarded the sandbagged northern boundary of Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital, refused to let me take the tumbledown dirt track that rattles past their checkpoint, the quickest route to the eclipsed village.
"Karaghuzhlah is under Taliban control," they said, in lieu of explanation. "We cannot guarantee your safety there." Yet, the same police official who in June told me that the Taliban had annexed Karaghuzhlah assured me, "Karaghuzhlah is absolutely safe."
I took a circuitous route to the village. It was entirely unguarded.
On the surface, the Karaghuzhlah to which I returned looks no different than the Karaghuzhlah I visited back in May, before the Taliban laid claim to the village -- unchanged, probably, for centuries. No black flags fly from Karaghuzhlah's mosques, and no cartoonish men in sinister black turbans whip their way through crowds of the immodest and impious. Kids still play in muddy ditches. Men still squat in the shadows of mosque walls to gossip and stare darkly at the road. Women still chase scrawny chickens away from tandoori ovens where conchas of unleavened bread bronze. There is still no power, no hospital, no decent roads. At first glance, only the seasons have changed: Instead of saccharine mulberries, unshucked almonds now dry in the sun on clay stoops.
Yet over this millennial Afghan landscape the insurgency casts a pall, a subtle anxiety that flits from one threshold adorned with hand-sewn taweez charms to another like the mynah birds that beset the village. Some villagers say, yes, the Taliban have been back several times in the last two months, always on motorcycles, always at night. Other say, no, we haven't seen them, we don't think they have been back. But one must stay circumspect nonetheless. "Even men no longer go outside after dark," an apricot farmer's wife tells me.
I pass the street where I spent a night in a policeman's house once, in winter. The iron bukhari stove in the room had gone out. As I drifted off on my thin tick mattress the last thing I saw in the convulsing light of a single generator-fed light bulb was my host gently spreading an extra blanket over me: an impromptu act of kindness, simple, immense. The policeman, I'm told, no longer comes home for the night from Mazar-e-Sharif where he works. None of the villagers who work for the government or foreign organizations do: The Taliban kill them as traitors. Last month, for example, they killed a schoolteacher in the village of Siogert, not 15 miles away. Near the policeman's house in Karaghuzhlah, a soldier's house stands shuttered. The home of a U.N. security guard. The small compound of another police officer.
"People are afraid," says Hussein Ali, the village timekeeper whom the villagers call the Historian. "God only knows what's going to come next." As we talk, he orders a grandchild to bring him some homegrown almonds and, squatting on the floor, begins to smash almond hulls with a glass cup. He goes at them fiercely, as though the nuts have personally insulted him. There is no reason for him to be shucking almonds: It is Ramadan, just past noon, and the first meal of the day is not until after 7 in the evening. But he goes on, whacking his cup at pound after pound of almonds, far more than his family will need for the night.
After the Taliban attack, the police disbanded the checkpoint and pulled out of the village. Then, under an U.S.-financed program to recruit untrained vigilantes to fight the insurgency -- because the regular forces are spread out too thin -- it armed 20 local arbaki, as such militiamen are called, with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Kalashnikov assault rifles, and a PK machine gun.
The arbaki program has had varying degrees of success in Afghanistan. In Kunduz province, Balkh's neighbor to the east, the vigilantes have been terrorizing and robbing civilians and fighting over territory; this month, the government ordered them to disarm within 20 days.
The commander in charge of the Karaghuzhlah arbaki is Shamsuddin, a former mujahideen who had fought against the Taliban once alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud. He assures me that Karaghuzhlah is "absolutely secure." He also tells me that no Taliban have ever set foot here, which I know to be untrue. I recall that when I first met Shamsuddin, last winter, he was threatening to join the Taliban in protest over a nighttime raid on a Karaghuzhlah household by American troops.
"We don't care about either the government or the Taliban," Mohammad Azghar, a driver, tells me. "Neither is going to look out for us or change our lives. We have to look out for ourselves and live for ourselves."
He is probably right. Twenty-five hundred people eke out a living in Karaghuzhlah, whose ancient cob walls girdle a maze of orchards and a tangle of irrigation canals. Most tend their orchards and fields in the scorching sun, working by hand and in sandaled feet, as their forefathers did when this land was contested by the Soviets, the British, the Mongols, the ancient Greeks. They have survived in the crosshairs of war for generations. None of the invaders have improved their lives. They were raised in a land that doesn't change; it only changes hands.
I stop by the house of Noor Bibi. A few days before the Taliban riders delivered their night letters to the village mullah, the police delivered to Noor Bibi the body of her son, a policeman who had been serving in Kandahar. He was killed when his car hit a roadside bomb the Taliban had buried in the dirt. The explosion tore out half of his back.
In Noor Bibi's crepuscular living room, women sit along the thick cob walls and fan themselves with trapeziums of embroidered cardboard. They helped her wash the young man's mangled remains. They consoled her while the men of the house placed her son's body in the ground by the mosque. Now they nod as she explains how the war creeping over her land has stripped her people of hope.
"My son worked for the government and he was killed by the Taliban," the orphaned mother says. "If he worked for the Taliban he would have been killed by the government. There is no place where we can go and live in peace."
As I head out the door, Noor Bibi sends one of the women to the trellis that leans against the east side of her house. Over my protestations she thrusts a plastic bag full of grapes into my hands: another act of kindness in Karaghuzhlah. We bow to each other. A mynah bird stares from the threshold.