The Taliban Come to Mazar

Last month, NATO forces ceded this northern city to the Afghan army, calling it safe territory. But insurgent forces are on the doorstep.

Jaweed, right, and his brothers, Farhad, middle, and Favat, left, tend the stall their father opened in Mazar-e-Sharif 10 years ago. Their father was killed in a bombing on July 20.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — The provincial police spokesman called the bombing “unplanned.”

As though the bomb had strapped itself to the back of a bicycle last month and then went off on its own volition in Dasht-e-Shor, a neighborhood of dusty walled compounds in working-class, northern Mazar-e-Sharif. As though this palliates the deaths of the man and three boys who were killed when the explosion ripped through an unpaved intersection.

As though there is anything left to be gained from another year of magical thinking as the Taliban methodically expand their reach in northern Afghanistan.

Since last summer the Taliban have been rapidly gaining control of Balkh province, which until then had been one of the safest regions in the country. Village by drought-stricken village they advanced, virtually undeterred, from the peripheries toward the provincial capital, where the shimmering turquoise tiles of the 15th-century Blue Mosque quiver in diffraction beneath an undulating, sinister billow of smog. Village by village, my friends and hosts told me of masked motorcyclists who arrived at night, summoned the elders, and announced their dominion over the withering cornfields, the parched orchards, the people fatigued by a lifetime of violence that torments their land.

Several days before I last left Balkh, in June, the Taliban claimed sovereignty over villages just a few miles outside of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Last month, initiating a gradual transition that, according to the Obama administration’s plans, should somehow wind down America’s war in Afghanistan by 2014, NATO troops transferred responsibility over security of Mazar-e-Sharif and six other provinces and cities to Afghan forces. NATO officials have picked Mazar-e-Sharif because they consider it safe.

* * *

I returned to the city last weekend. My bus from Kabul, the 2:30 to the Blue Mosque, crept through the granite scallop of the gorge at Balkh’s southeastern border, zigzagged past the ancient pomegranate orchards of Kholm, and wheeled out onto the alkaline Khorasan plains. Cauterized desert unscrolled before us and curved toward the northern horizon. Hot air throbbed under the merciless summer sun.

I called my friends.

“The situation is not good,” said Mohammad Alemi, one of the country’s leading psychiatrists who runs a psychiatric hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif, immediately after we exchanged the mandatory long, synchronic string of polite Farsi greetings. “But we have to live here.”

“Security is getting bad,” said Amanullah, a hunter in Oqa, a village about 35 miles north of the city. “There are lots of Taliban.”

“It is not safe as it was before,” said Qaqa Satar, who works as my driver, as I climbed into his beat-up Toyota Corolla. “Even in Mazar-e-Sharif things are bad.”

Shir Jan Durani, the provincial police spokesman, said the transition has gone “well.” When I asked about the bicycle bombing in Dasht-e-Shor, which took place on July 20, three days before Afghan officials took over security from German-led NATO troops stationed in the city, he replied:

“Things like this happen even in developed countries. There was an explosion in Norway recently, too.”

The police’s investigation into the bombing was brief; the investigators filed their report within 24 hours of the incident. The bomber was Ainuddin, a sharecropper in his 20s from a district in western Balkh that has been under Taliban control since last year. He had tied the bomb to the rear rack of his Chinese-made bicycle, the kind hundreds of men and boys ride along the city’s potholed streets. The bomb detonated at 11:45 in the morning, wounding 14 people and killing four. The bomber was still alive when the police arrived, but unconscious. The explosion had torn a giant gash in the right side of his torso. He died in the police car.

The police did not record the names of any of the victims. In the vast Central Asian battlefield ravaged by never-ending violence since the beginning of recorded history, what are four more dead?

“Afghanistan has a history of violence,” shrugged Durani. “The problem is in this soil and it keeps cropping up.”

* * *

At the intersection where the bomb blew up, the septic wound of the crater overflows with putrid water and rotting refuse. Above it gape the glassless windows of a real estate agency and the office of an after-school tutor, their concrete walls flayed by shrapnel. A few paces away, a gray-bearded man and a teenager sell groceries and household staples from two adjacent stalls. They were not here when the explosion struck: The teenager’s father, Abdul Dayan Ghul, and the man’s son, Hamidullah, were manning the stalls that day. Shrapnel from the bomb killed them both.

Abdul Dayan Ghul was 45. He had opened the shop a decade ago, after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime and Mazar-e-Sharif was abloom with hope. Other vendors on the street called him Ghul Agha, or, sometimes, “the old man on the corner.”

They called Hamidullah “the grandson of Baba Murat.” He was 11 years old.

The survivors stand in the shadow cast by the new tarpaulin they have strung over the stalls’ beams to replace the sheeting ripped by shrapnel. They reopened their bodegas after five days of mourning: The stalls are their families’ only sources of income. When there are no customers, the teenager, Jaweed, who is 19, worries two bulbs of fresh garlic in his right hand. Hamidullah’s father, Abdurrakhman, just stares, empty-eyed, at the suppurating street.

“Security is getting worse, but we can’t do anything about it,” Abdurrakhman says with the resignation of the doomed. Garlands of single-use packages of shampoo, the kind you’ll find in hotels, hang from a string behind him. A cheesecloth over an aluminum basin of fresh yogurt crawls with flies.

I ask about the two other victims. One, Mohammad Gul, was a 16-year-old boy on his way to school from his family compound down the street. The other was a teenage ice vendor. He was new on the street corner, I’m told.

No one seems to know his name.

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