MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan – It is a sanctuary in the middle of madness — an example of calm before an all but certain storm.
Sheathed in blue burkas, women drift in and out of the historic Blue Mosque, deep in thought.
Men sit together beneath the trees to block out the sweltering summer sunshine in small reading circles, and children splash in the foundation of freshwater.
You would not know that less than a 30-minute drive away, Taliban insurgents are battling local and government forces — ever so slowly choking the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif as the US withdraws from its “forever war.”
As of Friday, the Afghan government only controlled two other major cities, Kabul and Jalalabad.
Members of the Afghan National Army Commando Corps in the area say they are fully confident that Mazar will not fall.
But the locals are not so sure.
“The Taliban is all around Mazar,” said a shopkeeper named Shamsula who appeared far more weathered than his 35 years.
“Maybe it will be one day or two days. We don’t know how long until they come in.”
He added: “But if America stays here, life would be good.”
Asif, 23, echoed that sentiment.
“We want very much for the US to stay,” he said in soft, halting English.
Asif used to be a police officer in Kabul and was severely wounded in the twelve-hour standoff with the Taliban on the InterContinental Hotel in 2018.
But he has no bitterness about the long-running war.
“Once I got to meet and work with the Americans,” he said proudly.
“Maybe they might stay? You see, the situation now is not good. So maybe they see this and stay.”
Although many in Mazar worry that the city could fall to the Taliban at any time, it’s not possible for ordinary citizens to cower in their houses.
Life must go on, and people continue to work hard to survive and provide.
And they do so with gusto.
Streets are still stuffed with honking cars and open-air markets still brim with beggars, shopkeepers, bread-makers and kebab cafes from dusk to dawn.
Technically, there is a 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew, but there seems to be no one around to enforce it.
Indeed, there is an odd, Wild West feeling to the city, which appears largely unprotected.
There are no policemen patrolling the streets or soldiers in uniforms.
On rare occasions, a tank will roll through the traffic-clogged, dusty streets, flying a weathered Afghan flag to signal loyalty to the government in Kabul.
“I will go anywhere where there is peace. If the Taliban comes to Mazar, the war will go on, and they will kill,” lamented Khalil, a 38-year-old shopkeeper.
“When America got out, things happened very fast.”
He turned slowly toward the scorching midday sun and cocked his head with a question.
“Do you think America would still stay?” he asked.
Most in Mazar-i-Sharif express a sense of admiration for the US, despite how the invasion morphed into a nearly 20-year occupation.
One shopkeeper’s stand is walled by a large blue-and-red “Trump 2020: No More Bulls—” flag that he poses alongside with a cheeky smile.
However, there are others who want to know why Washington appears to be abandoning their country to the wolves.
Lal Muhammad, a 23-year-old English teacher, recalled chilling details of fleeing his hometown of Sheberghan last week as the Taliban blitzed through.
“It was too horrible; there was so much violence. After three months on the outside, the Taliban was able to come inside and take over the whole city,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“They were able to take over a prison and release all the prisoners, and then they went to the hospital and killed all the wounded soldiers.”
As a further illustration, he described meeting a mother he met at the hospital in Mazar this week, who brought in her sick son whose “leg was cut at the knee.”
“She was crying, and she was saying that a bomb hit and her four sons and one daughter and husband all killed. Just the boy who was cut at the knees survived,” Lal said angrily.
“Even a dog has more value than an Afghan in this world,” he said.
The last thin ray of hope for the beleaguered citizens — aside from the illusory dream that the US might reverse course and not withdraw troops — lies in the “public uprising forces.”
Those ragtag, all-volunteer militia groups are loyal not to Kabul but to the notorious regional warlords Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, who aided American forces after Sept. 11 to bring the Taliban to its knees.
Multiple insiders say that these unofficial forces have the skill and the will to beat back the Taliban but are hamstrung by insufficient arms.
Meanwhile, the government is purporting to bring the uprising forces under the formal umbrella of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) to try to keep some semblance of control over the militia outfits, which are estimated to comprise at least 6,000 fighters.
But the clock is ticking, and the morale of the Mazar people is fast falling by the day.
“The government has all the power to stand and get out the Taliban, but it is not happening. We go to sleep and wake up, and the Taliban has taken another province,” bemoaned Muhammad Aslan, 58, who works for an electric company.
“When America finally goes, we will be finished,” he said.