The villages fell without a battle.
Armed men on motorcycles simply showed up at orangeade dusk, summoned the elders, and announced the new laws. A 10 percent tax on all earnings to feed the Taliban coffers. A lifestyle guided by the strictest interpretation of Shariah. All government collaborators will be punished as traitors.
There was no one at hand to fend off the offensive. There were no policemen in the villages, no Afghan or NATO soldiers nearby. The villagers themselves, sapped by two consecutive years of drought and a lifetime of recurring bloodshed, put up no resistance.
Some of these villages I know quite well. I have swapped jewelry and cooked rice in too much oil with their women. I have walked to town across the predawn desert on bazaar days with their men. I have drawn ballpoint flower tattoos on the grimy palms of their children. I have fallen asleep on their rooftops, watching the Big Dipper scoop out the mountains I could just skylight against the star-bejeweled sky.
During each of my visits over the last 13 months, my village friends and I would trade the latest stories and rumors about the steady advance of the insurgency across Balkh province. The Taliban have gained control of two of the province's 14 districts. Three. Four. It was like watching the spread of a pandemic. We would drink murky green tea and click our tongues and shake our heads. Then we would part, promising to see each other soon.
We were, I now think, a little bit in denial.
On Sunday, I received a call from Oqa, a destitute hamlet of two-score clay homes prostrate in hungry supplication in the middle of the arid Northern Plains. I was supposed to drive up for farewell elevenses before leaving Afghanistan this week.
"The Taliban arrived last night," the caller told me. "Don't come, Anna."
I rang a farmer I know in Karaghuzhlah, an oasis of apricot and almond groves that shimmers over the tufted camel's hide of the desert. He had invited me to try the apricots. They are now in season.
"The Taliban have been here for two days," the farmer said. "If you want apricots, I'll send them to you in Mazar-e-Sharif."
What about Zadyan, the intricate clay cylinder of its 12th-century minaret watching over teenage carpet weavers like some somber desert custodian? Or Khairabad, to which Oqa's boys trek in winter with their camel caravans loaded with tumbleweed to sell for firewood?
On Sunday, a police official recited to me a grim roster. "As of 10:30 this morning, we no longer control the villages of Karaghuzhlah, Khairabad, Karshigak, Zadyan, Shingilabad, Joi Arab, Shahraq...." The list went on; the officer named about two dozen villages. Some of them quiver in diffraction only a few miles away from Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital.
Four weeks after the Taliban announced the beginning of their annual spring offensive, the insurgents have quietly taken over most of Balkh.
* * *
The land that nourishes Karaghuzhlah's orchards and Zadyan's mulberry groves is a millennial ossuary. Blood and bones of a dozen civilizations are kneaded into this loess soil; countless armies have slaughtered and were slaughtered here for at least 2,500 years. Most recently, Karaghuzhlah's men had fought the Soviets invaders and repelled the Taliban twice before the militia finally conquered the village in 1997. This week, they listened to the gunmen and pledged their loyalty. "Because they know that otherwise the Taliban will kill them," explained police captain Mohammad Rahim, whose Dawlatabad district, northwest of Mazar-e-Sharif, is now almost entirely in Taliban hands.
Or maybe because they realize that they are trapped, as Afghans have been forever, between armed men in different uniforms contesting their wretched land. Maybe they are simply hoping to get through the latest torment.
Their surrender was not in the news. In Afghanistan, most people live and die nameless, unsung, neglected by policymakers in Kabul and Washington both. The billions of international aid dollars pumped into Afghanistan in the last decade have mostly bypassed them.
Maybe, then, they yielded so easily because they cannot tell which is worse: the Taliban's severe and unforgiving rule or Afghan President Hamid Karzai's kleptocracy. From the latter they've seen nothing. They still toil in their fields much like their forefathers have done since the beginning of recorded history: with homemade wooden tools, barefoot, and with no access to health care, decent roads, electricity, or clean water. "Either way, our life will be very hard," my friend in Oqa once told me.
* * *
Outwardly at least, the Taliban so far have brought little palpable change to Balkh. Boys still sickle heaps of drought-stunted wheat by golden armful. Camelback farmers with shovels still ride at dawn to till their cotton fields. Indian rollers still tumble out of the sky in magnificent display flight, so blue they look like swatches torn out of the firmament, and sail over women squatting among miniature silver fireworks of onion blossoms.
But the villagers suspect this is a temporary peace, that war will arrive shortly, in NATO tanks and helicopters and Afghan army Humvees. Lately, Swedish and German personnel carriers have been rattling their armor down highways more frequently, auguring the violence to come. A few nights ago a NATO helicopter strike on a suspected insurgent's holdout in Alborz district mistakenly killed a vegetable farmer, the brother of one of the policemen guarding Mazar-e-Sharif's dazzling Blue Mosque.
"Every day things are getting worse," said Abdul Majid Khan Ansari, the deputy imam at the mosque, the reputed final resting place of Zoroaster and of Prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Wind moaned in the mosque's turquoise vaulted ivons and spiral minarets, ripping at pilgrims' salwar kameez and burqas, blowing off course the fabled white pigeons that are said to roost here by the thousand. "If it continues the Taliban will take control of Mazar city. A lot of people will suffer."
Mazar-e-Sharif itself has the feel of a city besieged. Since a suicide bomber last Saturday killed the venerated police commander of nine northern provinces, Gen. Daoud Daoud, an eerie hush has descended upon the city's low sprawl. The billow of brown dust undulating over streets suddenly empty of traffic and bazaars oddly deserted seems thickened with worry. After the last orange ray pierces the smog at dusk, the whistles of night watchmen who patrol the residential neighborhoods sound somehow more urgent, more dire.
"What will become of us?" my friends in the city ask me. "What will happen next?"
At the sandbagged city gates, motorists eye each other with suspicion. The two young men on a motorcycle: Have they wrapped checkered scarves around their faces to protect themselves from the dust, or are they Taliban scouts carrying pistols concealed somewhere in their loose salwar kameez? The bales wrapped in dirty cotton in the flatbed of a truck: the possessions of a family on the move, or explosives?
* * *
I bid farewell to my village friends by phone. I pass my salaams to their children and wives. I thank them for the gift of their friendship, for the times we have broken rough homemade bread together and dipped it in fresh camel yogurt, foamy and cloudlike. I wish them safety. Even to me, my wishes sound hollow. I feel as though I am leaving a sick friend.
I head to Takht-e-Pul, the ruins of a mid-19th-century governor's retreat six miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif. The road from Mazar to the city of Balkh -- the Mother of All Cities, the Arabs once called it -- bisects it, making its walls a perfect ambush spot. The first time I drove through it, in 2001, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance had stationed its tanks inside. Now the ramparts enclose some farmland and a reconstructed and empty mosque painted with flowers and pomegranate fruit. I am told it is still safe to go there.
Beneath the battlements of Takht-e-Pul, ripe wheat and feed oats whisper promises of another season of violence. To the east loom Mazar-e-Sharif's smoggy contours. To the southwest, the Alborz range, a Taliban stronghold for some months now. To the west, Balkh city, contested by insurgents. To the north, beyond golden grain fields bleeding into patches of white desert and sudden deep-green orchards, my friends' villages, newly captured. I look down. At my feet, a white pigeon, on its back, dead. Something, someone, has twisted off its head and dropped it a few paces away.
I turn to leave. To the hazy south, curlicues of smoke rise from shepherds' fires in the bajadas of the Hindu Kush. The mountains are stone-faced. They are 220 million years old. They have seen it all before, a hundred times over: the comings and goings, the victories and defeats.