Three Weeks in a Hopeless Land
I returned to a place I saw liberated in 2001. Now the Taliban are back, and the only thing that has improved is the cell-phone reception.
“The world was new each day for God so made it daily. Yet it contained within it all the evils as before, no more, no less.” —Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing.
MAZAR-E-SHARIF — Southwest of the airport, where the Northern Plains slope up into the dramatic massif of the Hindu Kush, a clay road meanders through some farmland until it meets a dried-out freshet. Park here and turn off the engine. Step outside and sit among the earthy tang of the grazing goats. Turn your back on the mountains, and watch gusts of wind drive herds of green wheat horses across the emerald valley; the coffee-colored billow of dust undulate above the low sprawl of Mazar-e-Sharif; and, beyond it, the dun, barely irrigated desert shimmer with diffraction.
If you sit here long enough, you will hear a low rumble at the airport: a B-52 Stratofortress bomber taking wing. It can carry 18 2,000-pound “smart” bombs, 51 500-pound bombs, 29,250 cluster bomblets, 12 nuclear cruise missiles. It could pulverize the Hindu Kush into beach sand.
A B-52 cruises at almost 50,000 feet. You can’t build a clinic or a well from that high up.
In 2001, I watched this plane’s sisters drive the Taliban out of power. I watched the children of my friend, Mahbuhbullah, dance atop the mud-brick fence of his farm and sing, “Airplane, airplane!”
Northern Afghanistan was brimming with hope then.
Almost nine years later, I traveled across the region to visit Mahbuhbullah and his children. The two-day road trip from Mazar-e-Sharif took me in and out of Taliban territory a dozen times. This time around, there were no checkpoints to mark my entries and exits, no friendly gunmen to direct my route. The Afghan government may control a town by day, and the Taliban, by night. There is no front line.
There is also no electricity, no clean water, no health care, no education for most Afghans. The land seems suspended in time. I notice two big changes. One: Islamist insurgents are gaining new ground in the north — a region largely hostile to the Taliban the first time I came here — almost daily. Towns that never saw Taliban rule before the war are now little fiefdoms of the militia. Taliban strongholds pincer my friend’s village.
Two: the proliferation of cell-phone towers. In 2001, there were no cell phones.
Afghans have little hope for the future. But they have good cell-phone reception almost everywhere.
Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul
Through the window of my Boeing 737, I see the pale veins of ancient clay paths over which the Achaemenid invading armies marched, then the Greeks, then the British. A handful of craters in no particular pattern: a Soviet air raid. A neat row of 12 craters: A B-52 dropped its payload of 1,000-pound bombs here.
Among these scars, people eke out a living the way they have forever: with primitive wooden tools, nursing centuries-old grudges, alone. They bake delicious nan and cook giant vats of rice pilau and grow pomegranates with seeds the color of the fratricidal blood that soaks their tree-roots. They live in fear that their closest neighbors will kill their men and rape their women. They don’t trust a government that has done nothing for them. They have no faith in the international donors whose aid has yet, nine years later, to reach them.
They do not invite the Taliban. They do not resist its advance, either. They are just trying to get through whatever misfortune rolls their way across these wracked plains next. These people are experienced at the art of war survival. They have been practicing it, almost incessantly, for millennia.
I had traveled to the north to see what had happened to the people I saw celebrate the Taliban’s downfall in 2001. Of all the friends I had made then, I could find only Mahbuhbullah. The only effect the post-Taliban government has had on his life has been a negative one: Kabul has clamped down on the illegal trade of artifacts, and my friend can no longer augment his earnings by fencing small relics looted from Ai Khanuom, the town Alexander the Great built 2,300 years ago on the banks of the ancient Oxus River.
I could not find Hanon, a former Northern Alliance fighter who, in 2001, taught me how to cross a minefield and how to recognize the proximity of a bullet by the sound it makes. I could not find Ghulam Sahib, who drove me around northern Afghanistan in a Soviet-made military jeep with no suspension. The last time I saw them, they lived in Kunduz. Today, the province is mostly under Taliban control.
I imagine that they are not doing too well. Few people in Afghanistan are these days. But I like to think that they, like Mahbuhbullah, are surviving.
A few days before I left northern Afghanistan, I met an old man in a soiled turban sitting on his haunches on the sidewalk of Dasht-e-Shor street in Mazar-e-Sharif, cupping a white pigeon.
“Take her,” the man said, thrusting the bird at me. The pigeon fluttered her hollow-boned wings whitely, then settled in his palm again. “Take her.”
Men tending nearby juice stalls strolled over to watch. A young boy pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with cement slowed down. Women craned inside the stifling blue nylon of their burqas. I touched the pigeon’s neck with my fingertips. Soft, weightless. She unfolded her wings again, and I could see the marble of her underbelly. Her legs were broken.
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