by Anna Badkhen
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
“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.”