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“He said that anyway it was not so much a question of a correct map but of any map at all. He said that in that country were fires and earthquakes and floods and that one needed to know the country itself and not simply the landmarks therein.”
-Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing.
The 2009 edition of Nelles’ map of Afghanistan marks the country’s imposing mountain ridges, its life-giving rivers, some historical landmarks, and all of its major and many of its minor roads (some are just well-worn stretches of desert or parallel ruts hollowed out in steep mountainsides by generations of motorists).
But when I show an Afghan aid worker in Kabul the road I want to take, one that humps over the Hindu Kush and descends into Afghanistan’s northern plains, he shakes his head: This road is off limits. He knows what the map does not show — that every ridge along the way can be a firing line; every gorge, an ambush; every valley, the backdrop for a massacre.
The last time I was here, Afghanistan’s north commonly considered the safest section of the country. You could hail down a taxi in Mazar-e-Sharif to drive to Kabul; you could stop for a lamb kebab at a roadside café; and if you decided to stay at a chaikhana for $15 a night you worried about bedbugs, not kidnappers.
Between 2001 and 2004, I traveled through the north a lot — both during the fratricidal war between Taliban government troops and the U.S.-backed rebels of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and after the strict Islamic regime collapsed. With the Taliban banished, villagers clenched by poverty still died of hunger and diseases, the literacy percentage among women remained in single digits, children as young as six still joined the work force, and landmines and cluster bombs continued to kill and maim hundreds of people each year. But, compared to now, those were happy times. The plains of Kunduz and Balkh provinces appeared to exhale in relief, with the expectation that after a quarter-century of bloodshed things were going to turn for the better. Even the massifs of Baghlan province seemed to have relaxed their Cretaceous frowns. U.S. forces and most of international donors focused their attention on southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban had retained a stronghold.
While the world was distracted, the Taliban quietly returned to the north.
Now it levies taxes on farmers and robs and kidnaps travelers in Baghlan, which is bisected by the north-south highway NATO uses as an important supply route. It controls virtually all of Kunduz, where the highway crosses the Pyandzh River into Tajikistan, the staging point for many European troops headed into Afghanistan. Afghan forces periodically exchange fire with Taliban rebels in Takhar, a province that before the American-led invasion in 2001 largely had been an anti-Taliban stronghold. The Taliban has forged an alliance with the insurgent militia of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the famously egomaniacal Islamist warlord who gained prominence as an anti-Soviet rebel commander in the 1980s, and who has opposed every Afghan government. The alliance is tenuous — last month, a clash between Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami militia and the Taliban killed dozens of militants on both sides — but Hekmatyar’s men, who operate in swaths of Baghlan and Kunduz provinces, contribute to the general instability in the north by staging attacks on international and Afghan government forces and robbing local residents. (Hekmatyar has told the Afghan government that he would lay down his weapons — provided all foreign forces agree to withdraw entirely within 18 months and a “neutral” government replaces the administration of President Hamid Karzai.)
How was it possible for the insurgency to sweep to power in the part of the country where the militia was so loathed, where it does not have a lot of ethnic ties (Northern Afghanistan is populated mostly by Uzbeks and Tajiks, with only a few pockets of Pashtun) — an area that is cordoned off from the Taliban’s southern hotbed by a mountain range whose lowest pass soars at a vertiginous 8,777 feet? What happened to the people I saw celebrate the Taliban’s downfall in 2001: families who had returned from years of exile, brothers who had reunited after fighting each other, farmers who had reclaimed the fields the Taliban and the Northern Alliance had used as battlegrounds? What happened to Mahbuhbullah, my host in Takhar Province who made a living smuggling vodka from Tajikistan and fencing 2,300-year-old artifacts from a town Alexander the Great had built a mile from his house? And, the bigger question for the United States and NATO forces as they struggle to reassert control over the whole country: Is it possible to actually secure any territory in Afghanistan, even the most seemingly peaceable, for a significant length of time?
I am traveling north to try to find out.
Today in Kabul, I am trying to plot out my route. The road from Baghlan to Kunduz, I am told, is a no-go zone. I ask a security advisor for a Western relief agency about the highway from Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh, to Kunduz. He responds:
“Don’t even dare travel on that road.”
A political map of the country in his Kabul office shows Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. According to a recent article by Kim Barker, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Taliban has set up its own court system in 33 of them. The borders between the provinces are not important; what matters are the borders between territory controlled by the Afghan government (most of the provincial capitals and most of Kabul province, including Kabul) and by the insurgents (most of the rest of the country). These frontiers are not marked on any map I have seen, because they shift constantly.
I have been looking at a lot of maps. Each seems to reflect only a fraction of reality. A map with its own very particular reality hangs outside Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, where I went a couple of times to poach free wireless Internet. This map is euphemistic. Instead of Bamyan, the province where the Taliban had famously destroyed the world’s two largest statues of standing Buddha (and, less famously, raped and massacred thousands of ethnic Hazara Shiites), the map is labeled: BUDDHA. Instead of Kandahar: SPIRIT OF FREE. It is possible that the creator was Afghanistan’s own Pangloss: He must have seen almond orchards where there are minefields, souvenir stands where there are checkpoints, shady, cool parks on residential street corners where putrid heaps of trash decompose in the sun.
But I prefer to think of the map’s understatement as satire.
Northern Afghanistan is marked: “ADVENTURE.”
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.