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Waiting for the Taliban: A Journey Through Northern Afghanistan Kindle Edition

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Anna Badkhen

Question: In October 2001, you stepped off a plane in Afghanistan to cover your first conflict. What were your first impressions of the country and its people?

Anna Badkhen: Actually, in 2001 I did not step off a plane: Because at the time the United States was conducting its war mostly from the air, very few civilian planes and helicopters were allowed into Afghanistan. Besides, Taliban government controlled most of the country, and the sliver of Northern Afghanistan that was in the hands of U.S.-backed rebels had only one, barely functioning, airport. To get into Afghanistan I had to fly to Tajikistan, drive to that country’s southern frontier, and there, very late at night, take a rusty, diesel-powered ferry across the Pyandzh River--the Oxus of antiquity.

The Pyandzh was the border between the two countries, between war and peace. It was also a border between eras. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who eked out a living the way they had for millennia: without electricity or running water, tilling fields with primitive wooden tools, baking delicious flatbread in tandoor ovens, taking flocks of sheep to the jade hills at sunup. I fell in love with the tenaciousness and grace of these people, and with the generosity with which they shared everything: their shelter, their food, and their grief.

Question: You wrote that upon your return in 2010 you found "that the people who in 2001 had embraced the U.S.-led war are now wondering whether the Taliban’s puritanical and cruel governance may be a better option than the anarchy, corruption, and abandonment that followed the militia’s ouster." In summary, what went wrong in Northern Afghanistan over those nine years that you were away?

Anna Badkhen: After the invasion, the north--where ethnic Pashtuns, who form the core of the Taliban, are a small minority--was universally considered to be virtually Taliban-proof. NATO forces and most international donors focused their attention on southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban had retained a stronghold. The notion that the Taliban posed no threat in Northern Afghanistan spelled the region’s undoing: While the world was distracted, the Taliban quietly returned to the north, capitalizing on the disillusionment of the local population both with the UN-backed kleptocracy that governs in Kabul, and with the West, which, in their eyes, had broken its promise to improve the way people live in the region.

Question: From your sense of the people of Afghanistan, what do you think they want from the United States?

Anna Badkhen: Ninety percent of Afghans live in villages: kind, generous, religious people who live with their hands, who love their children, who want to kick back after a day of grueling manual labor, eat dinner, fly kites. They want what most people want everywhere in the world: Peace. Stability. Electricity, clean water, access to health care. They want to have enough food to feed their families. They want roads, and they want to be able to drive on those roads—whether to take their crops to market, or to visit relatives in a distant village—without being blown up by a roadside bomb, and without having to pay a bribe at every police checkpoint. They want to know that no misguided air raid will destroy their farmhouse while they sleep. It seems to me that at this point they don’t care whether all of this comes from the United States, or from some relief agency, or from the Taliban. Afghans have weathered thousands of years of invasions, fratricidal conflicts, political persecution. They are an astoundingly enduring nation. But they want a break.

Question: What’s a day in the life of an average Afghan citizen like? How can and why should an average American try to relate?

Anna Badkhen: You have done this many times: On a day off, you pack some sandwiches, water, and fruit, lock up the house, drive out of the city, and go for a hike with your friends.

One spring day, my Afghan friends took me hiking. Up a road strewn with chert, past some cotton fields drowned in stagnant water--to soak the hard soil--up a goat path that bisects a hill into a sloping wheat field and an almost vertical lea of cerulean wildflowers. Wars have swept over these hills like the smooth waves of wind that rolled the wheat ears, and many of the fields were probably ticking with landmines. But wars cannot kill our basic human need for normalcy, our appreciation of natural beauty. At the top of one hill--turtles peered out from their nest beneath wildflower stalks; an ant dragged a husk of last year’s grain to a crevice between lumps of the dry clay soil; a one-humped she-camel grazed on chamomile flowers--we sat and drank water and mango juice we had brought, snapping pictures and laughing. A little boy--my friend’s nephew--put a rose in my hair, and held my hand all the way back to the car.

Why should we relate? Because we are all human, because we share a planet, and because our world, in an era of globalized trade, the Internet, and the 24-hour news cycle, is rapidly shrinking. What separates us are a language, a set of customs, geography. These are superficial boundaries. We want the same things: friends to go hiking with, beauty to clap our eyes on, and someone’s hand to hold.

Question: In your opinion, what are the three most important things that Americans should know about the current situation in Afghanistan?

Anna Badkhen: One thing to keep in mind is that even those Afghans who initially supported the war against the Taliban no longer see it a war of emancipation, and NATO troops as liberators. They see it as another war that threatens their lives and the lives of their kin. They are not interested in Western-style democracy; their lifestyle is traditionally feudal and land-based. They rarely travel far beyond their tribal areas and the nearest market town. They want to live comfortably, they want their children to stop dying of such preventable diseases as dysentery or common cold each year.

Secondly: It is a common misconception that while the Taliban are a hardline, ultra-religious militia, their opposition--which makes up the current government--is not. Most Afghan leaders come from the ranks of mujahedeen, or holy warriors: a hardline, often ultra-religious militia formed--with the assistance of both the CIA and Osama bin Laden--to fight against the Soviets thirty years ago. Many have been accused of sanctioning mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and gang rape. The longer they remain in power, the longer their government will have no legitimacy in the eyes of many ordinary Afghans.

Finally: Nine years after the war began, life for most Afghans has not improved. Child mortality remains as high as it was in 2001: three out of four children die before they turn five. Most villages still have no electricity, no paved roads, no access to clean water. When people in the West wonder why Afghans do not appear grateful for the U.S.-led effort to rid their country of the Taliban, the question I have is: given these statistics, why should they?

Question: On a less serious note, what’s the best treat you tried while there? What did it look and taste like?

Anna Badkhen: Afghan food is a delight. During the spring 2010 trip that yielded Waiting for the Taliban, I stayed in a private house of a huge, tight-knit family. My room was next to the kitchen, and there was always something sublime cooking on the propane stove there, and mouthwatering aroma would seep into my room through the door crack. One day--it was a Friday, a day off--my hosts were having some guests over, and I helped out in the kitchen. We were making--in addition to rice pilau, meatballs, stewed lamb, salad, creamed spinach, and spiced rice pudding--mantwo, large Afghan dumplings with ground meat and onions (there is a recipe for mantwo and some other wonderful Afghan food in my book Peace Meals, which comes out in October). Four women at the counter, preparing lunch for 40. At first, the other women watched me very suspiciously: were my untrained fingers a match for the filigreed, stuffed beauties they were making? After the second mantwo, they said: “Good, you can do this,” and stopped watching. I felt as though I had been accepted into a tribe.

And the mantwo were delicious.

More from Anna Badkhen

Women weave a carpet in Oqa, an ethnic Turkomen village in Northern Afghanistan
White doves at the Blue Mosque, a shrine at the heart of Mazar-e-Sharif
A woman at the Mazar-e-Sharif house where the author stayed in the spring of 2010 carries a tray with freshly baked Afghan bread, naan.

Hiking in Sholgara on a day off
Mahbuhbullah and Nargiz, author's friends in Dasht-e-Qaleh, serve lunch at their house.
A man in Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin stands next to the grave of his child, who died of complications from a common cold.

About the Author

Anna Badkhen has covered wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq. Her reporting has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, National, FRONTLINE/World, Truthdig, and Salon. Her book, Peace Meals, will be published in October 2010. In April 2010, she journeyed to Northern Afghanistan on an assignment for Foreign Policy magazine to write a series of dispatches that eventually became Waiting for the Taliban.

Product Details

  • File Size: 155 KB
  • Print Length: 57 pages
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (September 9, 2010)
  • Publication Date: September 9, 2010
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #542,600 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Anna Badkhen writes about people in extremis. She is the author of five books of literary nonfiction, most recently "Walking with Abel" (Riverhead Books, 2015). Badkhen has written about wars on four continents, including the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Chechnya. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Guernica, and other publications.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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It is an excellent read (though short - 978 Kindle Locations). Pretty much apolitical, it will give you insight as to why simplified Western/American political solutions just don't seem to work in this poor and war-torn country.

Insights are derived from the diverse Afghan people the author visits during her most recent trip to Afghanistan. She tells their stories in a travel-diaryish format. Some of the stories are funny (but mostly not), many are sad (heart-wretchingly "How can God let this happen!" sad), all are interesting; salted with historical background information (both recent and ancient) that at least partially explains how the life conditions of that story arose.

A bargain at $2.99. Buy it.
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Afghanistan as it is, not as we would like it to be. An excellent look at life and how much hasn't changed, or at least not for the better in Afghanistan. A quick read, which I found difficult to put down once I started. Every story leaves you wanting another, hoping that maybe the next person interviewed is doing better in life. An excellent collection, my only complaint is that it ended so soon.
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The stories here are heartwrenching and real. Badhken takes us into the misery and beauty that is Afghanistan, a place seemingly stuck in a past millenium. Her vivid detail in describing the sights, sounds, smells, and feel is unmatched. Both as a travelogue and a human journey, this book is well crafted and filled with the sense of the author's compassion for a troubled land and its ferocious people. I learned much from this book and am glad to have spent the time it took to join her on her trip. I only wish it hadn't ended so quickly. If you're at all interested in the culture, history, and atmosphere of Afghanistan, this book should be read.
Ron Lealos
Author of Pashtun
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I just spent the last year deployed in Northern Afghanistan and this is a great little read. Written in 2010, I arrived in country in early 2011. It provides an interesting perspective as well since the author traveled and stayed with local Afghan families, so her writing is not filtered through a Coalition lens. She faced the dangers of traveling as any other Afghan civilian would. As others have mentioned, though, it is a short read since it is basically a compilation of her three weeks visiting the country. As far as proving an overall view of the north, however, the book's scope is too limited to truly do so since the author spent the majority of her time in Mazar-e-Sharif, with a trip to Konduz and Baghlan as well. What it does do well is allow readers to glimpse the daily difficulties Afghans face in scraping together a hardscrabble existence in a country whose citizens must do their best to survive from day to day - whether that means surviving the Taliban or the caprice of an incompetent central government. Worth the read.
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In terms of detail and specificity, clarity and knowledge of the topic area, this book really is unparalleled among others written on northern Afghanistan. The author is intimately knowledgable about the areas and skillfully uses historical context to provide the reader a sense of place, space and time. Her detail in describing seemingly less important people and places really lends credibility to her subtle and balanced description of the floundering efforts of western agencies to help the featured population. More than just a one time political snapshot story of northern Afghanistan, through references to her multiple visits to the area, Anna Badkhen has woven the story of a journey of compassion and connection that is far too often discarded by journalist authors for details of sensational events. Great diary-style read that flows well and is easy to follow.
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Anna Badkhen leaves little doubt that after nine years the Taliban are reclaiming the northern part of the country because the US and NATO forces turned their backs on it during the surge effort to quiet southern Afghanistan, the former Taliban stronghold. Something, she wants us to know, has gone terribly wrong in Afghanistan in terms of the war we're prosecuting there.

The three years she lived there, Badkhen describes as "happy times for Northern Afghanistan." She claims it was safe, that there was no kidnapping; that the trouble was all in the south. That there were no Taliban in a region not traditionally home to the Pashtun ethnic group from whence the Taliban come. In fact, in 2001 it was the hotbed of anti-Taliban sentiment.

That is no longer the case. Where once the Taliban was loathed, it now holds sway, setting up checkpoints, administering Shariah justice, and conducting terrorist bombing campaigns in Mazur-e-Sharif, taking control of Balkh Province.

The people of Afghanistan will not look at the back of the last departing American or NATO soldier with any fondness. We will not be missed. Our expenditure of treasure, material, and human lives will not be remembered, much less revered. No, we will only be displaced and replaced by another gang of force that will impose its will on the Afghans, washing against their mountain ranges like another wave upon a cliff lined shore. Badkhen leaves no room to doubt they will continue to behead people for punishment and goats for buzkashi between bouts of ethnic cleansing. And that is the hard truth.

Read more of my review here:[...]
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