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.
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