Afghanistan by Donkey: One Year in a War Zone
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To many Americans, 2011 was the make-or-break year in Afghanistan, a year during which NATO somehow was supposed to pave the way for American troops to end what had become, a decade after the invasion, the longest foreign war in U.S. history. To most Afghans, in whose land the United States was fighting the war, 2011 was a year of renewed violence and of renewed fatalism. But ultimately, it was very much a year like many before it and probably many to come: Of celebrations and toil, of children born and dying, a year of drought and henna parties, of hardship and joy, of desolation and beauty, of unnamable ache and incorrigible dignity. Another year of life.
“If you can’t understand a country just from looking at the cities, you certainly can’t understand a war just from reading about the battles. A decade after the fall of the Taliban, as the Afghan war spread alarmingly from the south and the east of the country into what had hitherto been the relatively peaceful provinces of Northern Afghanistan, Anna Badkhen spent a year embedded not with NATO forces but with the rural population of the often ignored north. She did this at considerable personal risk, traveling alone to villages and cities to deliver a story that has rarely been told by Western journalists.”
--Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War, in his preface to Afghanistan by Donkey.
know already.” Half a village away, the women blast folk tunes from Baba Nazar’s ancient, battery-operated radio and accompany the music on several large goatskin tambourines. The syncopated, forward-moving rhythm of the songs tolls across the village like a countdown, propelling the sun across the sky from east to west, changing morning to night, boys to men. 40 ANNA BADKHEN • AFGHANISTAN BY DONKEY • SPRING 12. THE TOLL MAZAR-E-SHARIF, BALKH PROVINCE BEHOLD THE LATEST toll of war from
BY DONKEY • SPRING it were his sex that is obscene, and not the waste lain to his body. The men look at the photo respectfully, then pass the phone back to the taxi driver. The children look on. “I’m going to tell my kids not to play in the street anymore,” says Khalil, a housepainter. He stares sternly at his two preteen sons. They stare back, small and hushed by their terrible new knowledge. The men smoke and ponder life and death in a land where war is not a marquee but a hideous and
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 next summer, twenty or perhaps forty riders will come with him, demanding tithes and sowing fear beneath the palisade of mulberry limbs that shades
VIDEO RUNS six minutes and fifty-three seconds. The villagers call it “the film.” The footage jerks between a road hugging a mountainside of Kunar province’s Kashmund Range and the terraced sierra across the valley. A column of armored Afghan military trucks is stopped on the road. Soldiers dash between the trucks. Someone is firing rockets at them from the other side of the coulee. The soldiers return fire with Kalashnikovs. The camera points fitfully at the dirt on the road, at the pale sky, at
prosperity, wondered whether puritanical and cruel governance by the Islamist militia would be a better option than the anarchy, corruption, and abandonment that followed its ouster in 2001. Since that visit, the Taliban have bitten off new chunks of territory in the north. In Balkh province, of which Mazar-e-Sharif is the capital, villages I visited last spring have fallen to the insurgency. Men have been kidnapped from the city. The deployment of thousands of American troops here this winter