Spring In Afghanistan

The Lost Villages

Saying goodbye to a once-friendly land, now taken without a fight by the Taliban.

BALKH PROVINCE, Afghanistan — 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.

Anna Badkhen

Spring In Afghanistan

A One-Man Insurgency

How a young Afghan went from policeman to murderer to saint.

MAIMANA, Afghanistan — Beneath a span beam bridge at the northern border of this provincial capital, the Maimana River trickles to a dun seep and turns to dust. Behind it, the layered escarpments of Turkestan Mountains' 12,000-foot crest fade to opal, then to nothing, evanescing into the blown-glass sky.

Between the mountains and the stream, on the dusty outskirts of Maimana, a handful of quivering flags mark the newest shrine in Faryab province: the grave of Samaruddin, a young border police officer killed by NATO troops after he murdered two American soldiers last month.

In this land of transubstantiation, the double metamorphosis of a policeman into a murderer and then, almost instantaneously, a saint lays bare the ultimate fulcrum for all the defeats of all the invasions that have befallen Afghanistan since time immemorial: the fervent, almost mystical, hatred of the occupier. A hatred that scores the face of every swallow-burrowed scarp, nourishes the root of every fruit tree, and supercedes all other loyalties and enmities. Even the cops in Maimana call Samaruddin "the shahid": the martyr.

"It's a religious thing," explained Col. Bismillah, a district police chief in whose Maimana suburb of domed clay houses and withering apricot orchards Samaruddin's body was buried. "Here in Afghanistan we believe infidels have martyred him for his faith."

On April 4, after what Samaruddin's supervisors say were three impeccable years of exemplary service, the 22-year-old man was manning a checkpoint outside the border police headquarters, a few dozen paces away from the bridge over the dying river. Several armored vehicles arrived, delivering American soldiers to train Samaruddin's fellow officers at the headquarters. All of a sudden, Samaruddin leveled his Kalashnikov at the foreigners and opened fire, killing two soldiers. When his rifle clip was empty, he ran off.

Two days later, NATO forces tracked him down in southern Maimana, where he was hiding in a friend's house, and shot him dead.

No one seems to know Samaruddin's motives for killing Americans. "We can't ask him," grumbled his commander, Col. Najmuddin Sardori, who investigated his attack on the foreign soldiers. "He's dead."

But Maimana elders and police officials insist that Samaruddin emptied the clip of his government-issue, Hungarian-made Kalashnikov at the U.S. soldiers of his own volition -- enraged by the burning of the Quran by religious fundamentalists in Gainesville, Florida, perhaps, or maybe upset by hearsay that American troops had violated rural Afghanistan's strict gender divide by entering a girls' school or peering immodestly into someone's house. They say that the young man, an ethnic Uzbek, was not a Taliban sleeper agent acting on instructions from the conservative mullahs who have been proselytizing in the province's villages.

Had Samaruddin been a Talib, he probably would not have been venerated. The Faryabis, mostly ethnic Uzbek and Turkmen farmers and carpet weavers beggared by drought, carry no love for the mostly Pashtun fundamentalist militia, whom they despise and fear, and whose insurgency has been gathering momentum in this northwestern province for the last two years. The local Taliban -- anywhere between 200 and 800 men, by police estimation, all heavily armed and highly mobile on their motorcycles -- control much of Faryab from dusk till dawn, when the province's meager and incompetent police force virtually vanishes from the streets.

They levy taxes on the already pauperized population, extort tolls from travelers, and wield a campaign of threatening letters and phone calls to terrorize villagers into abiding by the ultra-conservative rules familiar from Taliban rule a decade ago.

"They are really strict, really unpopular here," says Hazratullah, a pious young man who listens to an MP3 recording of the Quran to pass the time between customers at his cell phone repair shop in Andkhoi, Faryab's second-largest city. "People are worried about what would happen if the Taliban come to power again."

Samaruddin's one-man insurgency and the way it has been lauded are all the more ominous precisely because he acted alone. They represent the prevalent discontent with the NATO presence in Afghanistan, the popular patience run low with a decade's worth of promises that have failed to deliver even the most basic services to much of the country.

They are a portent of a kind of insurrection that could truly paralyze the U.S.-led effort to pacify Afghanistan: a revolt of the reverent and frustrated masses.

* * *

The Faryabis canonized Samaruddin almost overnight.

Less than a week after his burial in his ancestral suburb of Charm Gar Khona, people across Faryab were swearing that his shrine has magical powers; that the paralyzed walk away from it and the blind become sighted. Neighbors baptized the previously nameless, humped clay road near the checkpoint where Samaruddin killed American soldiers: It is now called Samaruddin the Shahid Street. All over Maimana, the young man looks dreamily from posters affixed to walls and windows: arms crossed at the chest of a green polo shirt, an exaggerated scarlet sun setting over a sea behind him.

"Ghazi, shahid Samaruddin Faryabi from the village of Charm Gar Khona," the poster declares, bestowing upon the policeman a last name that signifies his geographic affiliation with his home province, and two other honorifics: shahid and ghazi, the killer of infidels. "Photo printed in Afghan Konica."

Abdul Khaleq, who drives a zaranj moto-rickshaw in Maimana, picked up a poster at the shrine last month and taped it to his windshield, between two garish stickers of disembodied women's hands holding red roses. He assured me that a man who had been deaf since birth had gained the ability to hear after praying at Samaruddin's grave, though he, Abdul Khaleq, had not seen that man himself.

"Samaruddin the Shahid killed two Americans because they were taking pictures at a girl's school," said the young driver. "To me, it means he did a good thing. To me, it means he's a ghazi."

* * *

I wasn't allowed to visit the shrine.

"You cannot come here," Arsalan, an elder in Charm Ghar Khona, told me by phone. "The shrine is always crowded. People here are very rigid, they believe in old-fashioned things. They think of Americans as an enemy. They are very aggressive toward foreigners right now. They will rip you to shreds."

Perhaps I could come by with a police escort? Impossible, I was told.

"Bringing a foreigner there would disgrace the police and make people angry," Second Lt. Sayed Masood told me at the provincial police headquarters. "If we brought you to the shrine we would desecrate the shahid's memory."

Before I left Maimana I stopped at the bazaar to buy some bread and Watani cherry juice, produced in the northern Balkh province -- perhaps made from the tiny and violently sweet cherries from Faryab. At the shop, above packages of shelled almonds, Samaruddin's pensive face stared from a poster, looking past my temporary presence and up, at the 140 million years of violent orogeny of the Turkestan Mountains waning into the blinding white sky.

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images