For the next several weeks, Anna Badkhen will be traveling through Afghanistan’s north, documenting life there during this pivotal year for the U.S.-led war. This is the first in a series of dispatches Badkhen will be writing for TNR Online about her experiences.
Karaghuzhlah, Afghanistan—You can spot the village from miles away, quivering in refracted sunlight above a tract of Bactrian desert dun and tufted like a camel’s hide. The black crown of a sole pine, a rarity in these alkaline plains, marks the village’s eastern boundary. Churned trunks of mulberry trees weave into a palisade above the hand-slapped clay walls. Within these walls, narrow, centuries-old streets hug crooked irrigation canals, and men squat to chat by manual water pumps and in front of the lime-green mosque.
This is hard-earned and fragile serenity. The men of Karaghuzhlah fought for it when the Soviets invaded in 1979. They repelled the Taliban twice before the militia finally conquered the village in 1997. Many at that point joined the anti-Taliban mujahedeen, who eventually became the ground troops of the U.S.-led invasion and helped drive the Taliban from power in 2001. Since then, Karaghuzhlah’s 10,000 people—an ethnic pastiche of Hazara, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Pashtuns—have returned to the life their forefathers once had led: tending their almond and mulberry groves in relative concord, with no paved roads, no sanitation, and no electricity. When someone needs to go to town, they take a daylong trip by donkey or walk. When someone is in need, the whole village helps out. And, when someone is threatened, the whole village rallies—even if the offenders are American soldiers, the latest in the millennia-old sequence of invaders who have waged war upon this embattled land.
American presence in Balkh, Karaghuzhlah’s province in northern Afghanistan, was nominal until recently. But, in the middle of 2010, the United States deployed several thousand additional troops here in response to the growing insurgency in the north. Around the same time, to put pressure on the Taliban during the year when NATO must somehow turn the quickening tide of insurgency and allow for the United States to begin withdrawing its troops, General David Petraeus, NATO commander in Afghanistan, stepped up nighttime raids across country.
One of these raids took place in Karaghuzhlah last month, when American soldiers in helicopters stormed the mud-brick house of Qori Shakur. The young carpenter had recently gotten married; he was so broke his fellow villagers had pitched in to pay for his winter wedding. He had whitewashed the front of his mud-and-straw house to welcome his young bride; trimmed in bougainvillea purple the flimsy plywood front door and the doorframe; and spelled, in careful lavender calligraphy beneath the uneven poplar roof beams, the words: “Dear Guests Welcome.”
The raid came a few weeks later. The almighty roar of the low-flying gunships quaked the air above the bulbous clay roofs. The entire village woke up. There was an explosion outside the house—a flashbang grenade? the confused villagers couldn’t quite tell—that singed much of the whitewash and lodged three bits of shrapnel in the outside wall of clay and straw. The soldiers kicked in the purple door and entered the house, unloading chests and toolboxes in search of weapons. One helicopter landed in the almond grove and snapped a cluster of trees.
When they left, the soldiers took Qori Shakur with them, handcuffed and blindfolded. They said he was an insurgent, a Talib. NATO troops are supposed to leave contact details to help relatives trace the detainees, but in Karaghuzhlah, villagers say, they did not. (NATO in Afghanistan did not respond to messages requesting comment for this article.) No one here knows where the carpenter was taken. No one here has heard from him since. For almost a month now, his mother has been standing beneath the welcome sign, leaning against the splintered remains of the purple doorway, worrying the fringe of her shawl, watery blue like her worn-out eyes, waiting for word on her firstborn son.
Critics of nighttime raids—President Hamid Karzai among them—say such incursions alienate Afghans. Indeed, the February assault insulted and shocked the villagers of Karaghuzhlah, many of whom once faced off against the Taliban on the casings-strewn hills of northern Afghanistan. The villagers say the Taliban insurgency so far has not reached Karaghuzhlah’s crooked streets. But, since the raid, the villagers have been contemplating an insurgency of their own. “The Americans say they want to bring peace to Afghanistan,” says Shamsullah, a village elder who fought against the Taliban alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary mujahedeen leader. “You cannot bring peace like this. If the people here didn’t want to be Taliban, they will join after this.”
A delegation of 200 stern-faced men recently journeyed on unpaved roads 30 miles south to Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital, to petition the police and the governor of Balkh, General Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, once a chief American ally in the war against the Taliban. The governor publicly denounced the raid as “inhumane and illegal under the Afghan law.” The police, however, told the villagers they were unable to help: NATO forces operate outside the jurisdiction of the Afghan government.
Now, around water pumps and near the lime-green village mosque, seething villagers congregate to curse the Americans whom they once saw as allies. There is talk of indignity suffered. There is talk of revenge. “We expect Americans to help us, to build our roads and clinics,” says one villager, and pointed a finger heavenward as though summoning some divine witness. “We don’t expect them to come at night in helicopters and take away our sons.” “If he [Qori Shakur] is an insurgent, the Americans should have told us, and we would have sent the police to arrest him,” interrupts another. “We do not accept them barging into our homes like this. If they do this again we will fight with whatever we have.” A third man adds, “Even if he is an insurgent, he is only one insurgent. Now, because of the raid, all of Karaghuzhlah’s people are ready to become insurgents.”
Every day, villagers file into Qori Shakur’s neat compound, empty except for a tin basin of kale, a few yellow plastic water pitchers, and the splintered remnants of the purple front door that lean against the low compound wall. They ask the carpenter’s mother if there has been any word of the detainee. No word, she tells them, veiling her face with her blue scarf. The men stand awhile, shaking their heads. They suck their teeth and wander off to inspect, for who knows which time, the broken almond trees in the orchard. On two of the trees the American helicopter has crushed, the mangled branches are in silver bloom.
The people of Afghanistan’s ancient northern plains hold grudges for a long time. Blood feuds here last for generations; memories of decades-old attacks are passed on from father to son, perpetuating the cycle of ethnic revenge. In Karaghuzhlah, people nurture the memories of every slight they have sustained. They keep tallies of insults that must be avenged. And they have added Qori Shakur’s violent disappearance to their list.
Anna Badkhen is the author of Peace Meals and Waiting for the Taliban. She is writing a book about timelessness. Her reporting from Afghanistan was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.