KARAGHUZHLAH, Afghanistan — Inked against the sepia fields of November, the village orchards stand dormant, woozy from recent rain. All is quiet. The war here is postponed until after the blooming of almonds but before the harvesting of pomegranates, because the motorcycles of the local Taliban elder cannot negotiate Karaghuzhlah's viscous winter roads.
The elder's name is Gul Ahmad, though they call him Mullah Zamir. He winters in Pakistan. But when he returns to Balkh province next summer, 20 or perhaps 40 riders will come with him, demanding tithes and sowing fear beneath the palisade of mulberry limbs that shades Karaghuzhlah's crooked mud-walled streets and irrigation canals. The village arbaki -- 30 or so untrained minutemen armed, with the blessing of a U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency program, with Kalashnikov rifles -- will be ready to defend the village. There will be war. It is certain. So says one of the militia commanders, whose name is Jan Mohammad, though they call him Janni.
"In the winter we have peace and in the summer we have war," Janni tells me over a cup of green tea at a friend's house. Because it is winter -- a heavy snowfall and two weeks of subsequent rain have reduced the unpaved desert roads to a morass of ankle-deep, sloughy goo -- we can kick back, stretch out on our thin mattresses, trade shucked almonds and cigarettes. We can muse about the strange nature of the war that is gnawing northern Afghanistan: war that may be intangible to the NATO troops who have spent a decade fighting it, but that to the Afghans who live here is predictably seasonal, like sowing winter wheat in the fall, say, or spreading freshly-picked almonds to dry on clay stoops in unsparing summer sun.
Seasonal warfare here predates the Taliban, the anti-Soviet mujaheddin's spring offensives of the 1980s, the 19th-century blitzes against the British Raj by guerrillas wielding jezail matchlocks. Year after year, the people somehow pick their way past pendular swings of immemorial, internecine violence. They hold their breath when the fighting escalates, exhale when it quiets down. Even now, 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion, they do so with little outside help. The billions of dollars of international aid barely trickle through to rural Afghanistan, and the NATO counterinsurgency operations focus mostly on the country's south and east. The way the people adjust to the idiosyncrasies of the latest iteration of violence can be regarded as resignation. But I think it's grace.
Near the Taliban stronghold of Char Bolagh -- no fighting there since October, a provincial police spokesman informs me -- fog clings to the thorny gnarls of unharvested cotton along a paved stretch of the ancient Silk Road like tufts of cotton. Women head to bazaar each Monday in horse-drawn buggies, erect and stern in their veils. At a police checkpoint beneath the ancient walls of Balkh, the city despoiled first by Alexander the Great and then by Genghis Khan, a man in a soiled shalwar kameez leads a stately camel caravan laden with wooden ploughs over speed bumps fashioned from the treads of Soviet tanks. Beside the exoskeleton of an armored personnel carrier -- who killed and died in it, in which war? -- a farmer's sons stoop to pick cauliflower from a field of pale, waxy green.