NAUBAD AND UMAKOI — On moonless nights, after the agony of a fuchsia and orange desert sunset fades to complete blackness, U.S. helicopters airlift Taliban fighters from Kandahar and Helmand to highly secretive drop areas on the sedimentary planes of northern Afghanistan.
Qaqa Satar, my opinionated driver from Mazar-e-Sharif, believes this. My host in Kabul, a shoe salesman, believes this. His daughter’s fiancé, a freelance radio journalist, believes this, as does my old friend Mahbuhbullah in Dasht-e-Qaleh, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kunduz, and the turbaned elder of Naubad and Umakoi, two farming villages just outside the ancient, limestone walls of Balkh, their porous dry clay pale through the fields of unripe wheat like the bones of some prehistoric dragon.
Do not rush to dismiss this far-fetched conspiracy theory as the unenlightened jabber of uneducated men. Consider it, instead, a byproduct of the grotesque failure by international donors and NATO to improve life here, despite the billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops pumped into this country since the war began on Oct. 7, 2001.
Think of it this way: The notion of an unholy, clandestine partnership between the United States and the Islamist militia it has been trying, unsuccessfully, to defeat for eight and a half years is the only plausible explanation of a reality these Afghans find all but unbelievable — that the Taliban is getting stronger. That for most people here, life is not changing for the better.
Eighty percent of Afghans today live in the same exact landscape Alexander the Great must have beheld when he sacked Balkh in 327 B.C., and Genghis Khan when he sacked it again in 1221: walls of straw and mud, half-gnawed away by weather and age; hand-sown fields tilled by doubled-over farmers in unbleached robes with knobbly, wooden tools. Most have no electricity. No clean water. No paved roads. No doctors nearby.
Naubad and Umakoi are like that. There, Ajab Khan, a turbaned elder in once-tasseled slip-ons that now are more mud than leather, demands that I explain to him why, despite the alphabet soup of relief agencies that operate in Afghanistan, despite the cutting-edge military technology that allows U.S. planes soaring invisibly high to precision-bomb tiny targets on the ground, despite cell phone towers that have sprung up all over the country, his people still live in the 11th century (if the 11th century had limited access to cell phones).
“The Taliban levied taxes on everyone,” Ajab Khan says, “but” — he holds up a gnarled finger for effect — “there was order, there was security. There was no corruption. No theft.”
I hear the same refrain from Sayed Karim Talash, the head of the Kunduz office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. I ask him what precipitated the return of the Taliban to parts of northern Afghanistan that, in 2001 and 2002, seemed relieved to be rid of the Islamist movement’s unforgiving rule.
He replies, “The Taliban had a fair, unbiased justice system. People’s problems were solved in less time. The Taliban helped the needy. They didn’t allow crime.”
I hear it, also, from Qaqa Satar — except the driver is reminiscing about life under the Soviet-backed rule of President Mohammed Najibullah instead of the Taliban.
“The Russians cared for the people,” he tells me. We are driving to Mazar-e-Sharif after slogging through a camp of dugouts, tents, and clay huts some 1,000 former refugees slapped together by hand after returning from exile in Pakistan two years ago. From each tent, each dugout, hands thrust at me wads of prescriptions the refugees cannot afford to fill. Doctors’ orders they cannot afford to follow. Filthy infants they cannot afford to clothe.
This would have never happened when the communists were in charge, Qaqa Satar tells me, shaking his head.
“People were happy,” he says.
Never mind that the Taliban publicly maimed and executed people for misdemeanors, and officially excluded women from public life.
Or that Soviet troops killed upward a million Afghans, deliberately bombing hospitals, razing entire villages, and scattering bomblets disguised as children’s toys.
The men I speak to profess no recollection of any such crimes.
“Sure, the Taliban didn’t allow women to go out — but the security was good,” says Talash.
“The Soviets punished very few people, and only those who deserved it,” Qaqa Satar retorts.
It occurs to me that perhaps they need this selective memory loss, this nostalgia that erases and smoothes out the memories of past iniquities. In a land where history is a progression of savageries inflicted by men with ever-evolving weapons upon the same mud-brick landscape, a sanguine recollection of the past allows for the belief that life has been better.
It allows for the chance that one day, life will be good again.
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.