OQA, Afghanistan — The video runs 6 minutes and 53 seconds. The villagers call it "the film."
The footage jerks between a road hugging a mountainside of Kunar province's Kashmund Range and the terraced sierra across the valley. A column of armored Afghan military trucks is stopped on the road. Soldiers dash between the trucks. Someone is firing rockets at them from the other side of the coulee. The soldiers return fire with Kalashnikovs.
The camera points fitfully at the dirt on the road, at the pale sky, at the mountains. You can hear rockets and bullets ripping out chunks of stone. You can hear the low rattling of Kalashnikovs and the higher-pitched pings of M16s. A young man's scared face briefly appears on the screen -- a passerby? A soldier? You don't see him again. The cinematography is spasmodic, erratic, much like the war it is documenting. Abed Nazar, the nephew of Baba Nazar, the Oqa elder, says he shot the video himself, with the camera in his cell phone.
Oqa is far from the tragic mountain passes of Kunar, which many Americans know from the movie Restrepo. It is a tiny cluster of some 40 low houses raised with mud and straw that gape doorless at the Bactrian desert from a desolate barchan. One of the houses belongs to Baba Nazar; we watch the video in his tiny thatch-roofed room. The room fits two narrow mattresses, an old trusseau, and a bukhari stove upon which water is boiling in two fire-blackened pitchers; apart from the screen of Abed Nazar's cell phone, the only sources of light are three small ovoids punched at irregular heights through the two-foot-thick cob walls. Outside these windows, a different kind of war rages on; a war of attrition that cannot be easily captured on 6 minutes and 53 seconds of film.
In this war, the Taliban are quietly claiming dominion over swatches of the trout-colored northern Afghan desert. They impose tithes on farmers and merchants, silence cell phone networks at night, stop musicians from performing at weddings. The episodic violence -- a murder here, a suicide bomb strapped to a bicycle there -- is not cinematic. It is just enough to inject a population exasperated by a decade of unfulfilled promises of a better life with subtle, nameless angst.
Just as quietly, villagers in northern Afghanistan are arming themselves, clustering into vigilante teams. Last month, near the village of Siogert, about 20 miles south of Oqa, a group of ethnic Tajik and Turkmen minutemen killed two Pashtun Taliban fighters, apparently in retaliation for the Taliban's murder of a local teacher in June. Are such killings homespun counterinsurgency operations, old-school revenge killings, or the latest spasms of ethnic strife that has bled the Khorasan for centuries? Who can tell? In this war, Manichaean definitions almost never apply.
In this war, civilians perish because incessant violence has decimated the land's infrastructure, stunted its healthcare, and sentenced millions of civilians to deaths that could have been prevented, or at least significantly postponed. Despite billions of dollars of international aid that has poured into Afghanistan in the decade since the U.S.-led invasion, Oqa's children perish each year of preventable diseases that go untreated because no one in the village has a car and the nearest clinic -- indeed, the nearest settlement -- is three hours' walk away across a roadless desert, and because the doctors who staff the government-run mobile clinics say that visiting the village is too dangerous.