From time to time, Qasim looks at me in the rearview mirror of his taxicab and plays tour guide.
"See this shrine?" He nods toward a green flag that flutters from a stake jutting out of the ground amid the white flashes of unpicked cotton. Behind it rise the breast-shaped clay roofs of the village of Siogert. "Seven brothers were killed here. They were Uzbek. They were fleeing the Taliban, in 1997. We were all fleeing then."
"See this flag?" Another stake, this one driven into a mud wall by the road. Short, diagonal grooves dimple the wall: the palm marks of the men who molded it by hand out of the desert. "One brother killed another brother here, over land. It was after the fall of the Taliban.
Then someone killed the killer; I'm not sure who."
In rush hour Mazar-e-Sharif, Qasim's yellow-and-white Corolla crawls through a roundabout near the western gate of the Blue Mosque, the legendary burial place of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law. In the morning fog, the turquoise shrine shimmers, as if it were encased in ice. Men draped with thin camel-wool blankets stroll through the mist in reverent quietude to feed the 10,000 white doves said to flock here.
Qasim's eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. "In the time of the Taliban in this place they hanged a young man."
At an unpaved intersection several blocks away, Qasim's car rocks gently over a bomb crater. On this spot last July, a suicide bomber detonated a device strapped to his bicycle, killing four people. "See this?" Qasim says. "I was at a cafe down the block, finishing my lunch. Had I left a minute earlier, I wouldn't have been here today."
Each murder clings to the Bactrian plains like soot from a bukhari stove, like a patina of rot, until it becomes part of the landscape: indelible, unredeemable, conditioning people's memories and yearnings. Until it takes root in a land harrowed by centuries of village-scale ethnic cleansings and fratricides. "The problem is in this soil," a local police officer once told me, "and it keeps cropping up."
I have been coming here for a decade. At times, it has seemed possible to render the war that torments northern Afghanistan in simplistic terms. Ten years ago, with the help of a U.S.-led invasion, the region's secularists, monarchists, Islamic conservatives, soldiers of fortune, and armed hangers-on kicked the Taliban out of power. Recently, after several years of relative calm, the Taliban have made a comeback here. They are steadily claiming territory and facing little resistance from either NATO -- which is too busy fighting in the south -- or the locals, who feel betrayed and abandoned by the West and its kleptocratic protégés in Kabul.
But the violence that torments the Khorasan's infinite plains does not boil down to a fight between insurgents and a weak government backed by a NATO occupation, with millions of disillusioned, and mostly destitute, civilians stuck on the ever-shifting battlefield. Sometimes it emerges from a helix of revenge that began with a property dispute. Sometimes it is a suppuration of an ethnic wound inflicted decades or centuries ago but never truly healed. Sometimes it is all of the above, or none.
On the northbound road that runs from Mazar-e-Sharif toward the Amu Darya -- the Oxus River of Kipling and Alexander the Great -- Qasim nods toward a gully where white blotches of last week's premature snow, slow to melt, fold into ultramarine shadows. It was here that Taliban gunmen killed Sober, a well-loved teacher from Siogert, a village of 1,400 families of ethnic Turkmen and Tajiks, last June. A month ago, half a mile up the road, arbaki vigilantes -- untrained minutemen recently armed to fight the insurgency under a U.S.-sponsored program -- killed two Taliban fighters from a nearby village. The vigilantes' leader happens to be Sober's nephew.
Was it a counterinsurgency operation? I ask Azim Bai, Siogert's Turkmen elder, over tea with lamb jerky and cake.
"Perhaps," he says.
Was it a revenge killing?
"Yes," he nods enthusiastically.
So, does it settle things, then, between you and the Taliban?
"No," says Azim Bai. "As long as there are Pashtuns here we will always have war. There will never be peace between us."
But, I say, almost half of Afghanistan is Pashtun. There are four ethnic Pashtun villages within a two-hour walk of Siogert. They have been here since the 1890s, when Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman resettled 10,000 Pashtun families north of the Hindu Kush as part of his ethnic cleansing campaign against the indigenous Hazaras and Uzbeks.
Azim Bai nods. He sips his tea. He says nothing.
A week ago, on the second day of Eid al-Adha, which marks the culmination of the hajj and commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham, a record snowfall entombed the Khorasan. Two feet of snow fell in just a few hours. Then the temperature climbed into the 60s, and the snowmelt turned the loess desert the color and viscosity of melting chocolate, flooded village irrigation canals, inundated Mazar-e-Sharif's unpaved side streets.
For days, gutters in the city have been running with freezing mud, sewage, and the blood of animals sacrificed during Eid. I think somewhere in that composite of soil, refuse, and human waste there must be other blood as well: the blood of the young man hanged to the indifferent wing-claps of Mazar's fabled white pigeons, the blood of Sober and the two dead Taliban, the blood of the two brothers who quarreled over land. The blood of the 3,000 Pashtun Taliban soldiers massacred by Hazara and Uzbek militiamen here in 1997. Of the 6,000 Hazaras the Taliban mutilated, shot, and decapitated the following year. Of all the armies that slaughtered and were slaughtered upon this soil, almost incessantly, for the last 2,500 years.
"See this?" Qasim nods toward the window again. We are driving through the desert at sunup. All I see are the frosted jags of the Hindu Kush, saw-toothed against the blush of dawn sky, and, much closer, a golden eagle lifting up heavily from an outcropping of limestone to hunt for breakfast. The bird's shadow scythes through the juniper smoke of bukhari stoves in the slanted light of a cold November sunrise.
Qasim sees a crime scene.
"There was a mullah five years ago, Mullah Ghafur," the taxi driver says. "He was Baluch, from Karaghuzhlah. A man called Shir killed him. I think it was over money. Shir was Uzbek."
And we drive on, mapping the Khorasan's unwritten history of violence. It has no order. No clear-cut cause and effect. No closure. No end in sight.