Walking the Precipice: Witness to the Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan

Walking the Precipice: Witness to the Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan

by Barbara Bick


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In 1990, sixty-five-year-old activist and grandmother Barbara Bick traveled with a women’s delegation to Afghanistan for what she thought would be her last great adventure. Instead, Bick forged deep friendships with her Afghan hosts and in the ensuing years, she watched with horror as the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan and instituted fiercely anti-woman policies.

Eleven years later, at age 76, Bick returned to Afghanistan, this time to an even more dangerous terrain than Kabul: she traveled to the region controlled by the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban militia. She found herself in early September 2001 at a compound where Ahmad Shah Massoud, a leader of the Northern Alliance, was also staying. Bick walked out of the compound on September 9; minutes later Taliban infiltrators assassinated Massoud, a prelude to the al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

In the years that followed, the US government became deeply involved in Afghanistan, and Bick decided to go back one more time, to see how women were faring under the new government. In 2004, when she returned, she was one of the few Western women able to bring years of experience to understanding the country’s trauma. Walking the Precipice gives new insight into the people, politics, and culture of a country that is on everyone’s radar—for its beauty, and for its tragic place history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558615861
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 01/01/2009
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

Barbara Bick (1925-2009) was a longtime peace and human rights activist, working for Women Strike for Peace, NEGAR-Support for Women of Afghanistan, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Institute of Women's Policy Research, and the National Conference of State and Local Public Policies. She is the author of Culture and Politics and Walking the Precipice .

Read an Excerpt


Kabul, 1990

My first trip to Afghanistan is in 1990, the year I turn sixty-five. College, during World War II, then marriage and young children had been obstacles to my abiding desire to travel. It was not until my early forties that I became a traveler and then it was most often because of my work in the women's peace movement. As a representative of Women Strike for Peace to international conferences, I often found myself in countries with political systems inimical to the United States, such as Cuba and the Soviet Union, and worked on committees with women and men who had diverse agendas, and from them I learned something about the real lives of people beyond my own Western world. When I travel I am fascinated by regions with ancient, non-Western cultures and alternate political systems where I can see and hopefully better understand the lives of the people who live there. As a feminist, I am always especially interested in the conditions under which other women live.

After my divorce and with my three children grown, I traveled more frequently, most often alone and away from beaten paths. I lived for a year in Europe, to feel the beat of life in a region far older than America. I picked Italy for its history — and cuisine — and the nontourist city of Bologna, governed by the Italian Communist Party.

And then in 1990, having just reached the threshold of senior status, I began to think about one last, unforgettable journey before "old age" kicked in. Fortuitously, several months after my birthday, at a noisy reception in Washington, D.C., I met a woman I knew slightly from my years of work in the peace movement.

Rather abruptly, Gabi comes up to me and says that she and another woman I also barely know are going to Afghanistan on an invitation from the women's peace movement there. Would I like to join them?

My first trip to Afghanistan begins as simply as that.

Gabi is a tiny, vivid Italian American and a tireless activist. Unlike Cynthia, the other woman who will be on the trip, and who is a nurse and a true do-gooder, always ready to defend those in need, Gabi is utterly ideological, an anachronism in the peace community. Despite the fact that most progressives had given up on the Soviet Union decades earlier, Gabi rigorously defends all of the USSR's — and now Russia's — actions. Thus, her only interest in Afghanistan has been triggered by the 1979 Soviet invasion. I do not agree with her politically, but I sense no political requirements on my side, and it seems an ideal opportunity to participate with these two women in a fascinating trip to an unknown part of the world. And that is good enough for me. Afghanistan seems just right for the kind of slightly adventurous experience I am looking for.

I know, of course, that there has been a war, but it appears to have ended with the Russian withdrawal the previous year. Other than that, I realize, I am clueless and so go on a crash course to learn more about the country and its political history before I leave. I learn that for nearly a decade, Soviet troops have fought a bloody and vastly demoralizing (for the Soviets) war, ostensibly to help their fellow Communists in Afghanistan. After the Soviets left, the Afghan Communist government managed to hold on to power. As we prepare for our journey, they still control the government in Kabul with their own armed forces, and I assume that the city and surrounding areas are relatively safe.

Since the US government refuses to recognize the government, there is no exchange of ambassadors between the two countries. Afghanistan's US embassy maintains a skeleton crew, headed by a chargé d'affaires, thirty-eight-year-old Miagol (like many Afghans, he has only one name). Through his efforts, Gabi has obtained this invitation for an American women's delegation to visit the country.

Before we leave, Miagol invites the three of us for dinner at the embassy. It is a simple family meal with his wife, Sima, and their two young children. During dinner, Miagol tells us that he is "tremendously moved" by his experience in the United States. "Before living in Washington," he says, "I knew only that Americans were greedy capitalists and thought only of money. The free museums, the free parks astonished me — and free water for people to drink! I love to be in Washington," he enthuses, "and to play soccer in the Adams Morgan Park."

We discuss the situation in Afghanistan, and he contradicts Gabi when she says the Soviets had not invaded, but had only come in response to a call for help by the faltering Afghan Communists. "That is just part of the truth," he insists. "Friends come with peace corps, not with armies and bombs. The mujahidin are also Afghans, and for many Afghans, we, the government, are not the 'good guys.'"

I listen closely. What exactly are mujahidin? And why do they oppose the government Miagol represents? I realize that I am going into a complicated situation about which I still understand little.

Miagol tells us that mujahidin is the Muslim word for "holy warriors," fighters for God. He explains that the vast majority of Afghan people are very poor peasants who live in small villages. Ninety percent are illiterate. They are deeply religious and get much of their information from local mullahs, Islamic clergy, some of whom are themselves uneducated, and many of whom hold extreme fundamentalist views. The literate 10 percent of Afghans live mostly in towns and cities, and the most educated, professional Afghans almost all live in the capital city of Kabul. Many among these elites form the leadership of the Communist Party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

Miagol says that although they are also Muslims, PDPA members favor a modern secular state, which places them in opposition to the mullahs, and to a majority of rural Afghans. That opposition only intensified when the PDPA welcomed the "godless" Soviets into Afghanistan. The mujahidin have fought a long guerrilla war against these atheists; and now, after defeating the Russians, they are still at war with their own Communists. To the mujahidin and their supporters, Miagol reiterates, the Communists who rule the country could never be the good guys.

"Oh, Miagol," Gabi tweaks him, "you've been out of the country too long." I am annoyed that she would challenge an Afghan official, who certainly knows more about his own country than she does. But I am very interested by what he says next: "If I were twenty years old I would remain in the US." But he isn't twenty, and he is, in fact, being recalled to Afghanistan. His wife and children, who also want to stay in the United States, will go to her parents, who live in the Ukraine. "It is too dangerous in Kabul," he says sadly. There is a sort of civil war going on, he admits, but adds that the capital is under total government control and for some time will remain relatively safe for visitors like us.

I feel a twinge of fear.

As our departure date approaches, I develop more qualms, then moments of panic, and even begin to wonder whether I will be able to tolerate my companions' politics. But I deeply want this last adventure and feel reassured by Miagol's support of the trip and the fact that we are being sponsored by a women's organization.

So, despite my ambivalent feelings, I head to the doctor for all the necessary shots and summarily dismiss the cautions of family and friends against going.

Gabi, Cynthia, and I leave Washington in the middle of summer for India, where we board a plane for Kabul. As I look down from the plane on an enormous desert, crimson hills, and stark cliffs, I am enthralled. My spirits lighten. Legendary names echo in my brain.

I am seeing the terrain over which Alexander the Great passed in the third century B.C., after he defeated the great Persian empire of Darius III. Alexander's army, in subzero weather, crossed the Hindu Kush, the majestic mountain range of eastern Afghanistan, whose highest peaks reach altitudes of seventeen thousand feet. Alexander founded many cities in the region, some of which flourished, were destroyed, were rebuilt, and are once again vibrant today. And Alexander's army was only the first. The snow-covered mountains are cut through by passes, which, over more than two thousand years, became well-forged routes through which armies, traders, religions, cultures, and people penetrated and permeated Afghanistan. In the seventh century, Islamic Arabs conquered and converted the people of the region.

The Mongol chief Genghis Khan, his conquests eclipsing Alexander's, overrode this vast quarter of the earth in 1219. Peter Hopkirk's book The Great Game describes the Mongol warriors thus: "You could smell them coming even before you heard the thunder of their hooves. But by then it was too late. Within seconds came the first murderous torrent of arrows, blotting out the sun and turning day into night. Like molten lava, they destroyed everything in their path [leaving] a trail of smoking cities and bleached bones."

Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, founded the Mongol dynasty in China, and his uncles and cousins built Mongol empires that encompassed Hungary, Syria, Persia, Tibet, northern India, the Caucasus, and all of Central Asia, including Afghanistan. With my face pressed against the plane's window, I strain to resurrect the vanished masses of Mongols, their flashing scimitars and galloping horses. Tamerlane and Babur also traversed Afghanistan for the purpose of extending their empires and left a heritage of superb architecture and culture. Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews all set up colonies. People from the four cultures that surround Afghanistan — Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Central Asian — left their imprint on the land and the people.

All these influences are part of Afghan culture now. But modern Afghanistan is comprised primarily of four groups. The Pashtuns, the largest of the ethnic groups, speak Pashto and predominate in the south and east of the country, next to Pakistan. Tajiks, the second-largest group, primarily reside in the north and northeast. Turkic groups, including Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Kazakhs, dominate in the northwest, while Hazaras, the only Afghans with Mongol physical characteristics, reside in the center and west. The last three groups speak Dari, an Afghan version of Persian, as their first or second language; this is the lingua franca of Afghanistan, but there are many local dialects. Most Afghans are Muslim, split between the majority Sunni sect and the Shia. For much of its history, Afghanistan tolerated religious diversity. Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews played a significant role in the country's economy. Proselytizing was forbidden, so Christian communities were scarce.

In the early eighteenth century, a Pashtun warrior, Ahmed Shah, united many of the Afghan clans to form the Durrani Empire, one of the most powerful Islamic empires of all time. After his death, the country slipped into civil war. Victorian Britain and czarist Russia, eyeing a potentially valuable prize, vied for control in what came to be known as "the Great Game." Britain invaded three times in the 1800s, attempting to create a buffer state between Russia and Britain's "jewel in the crown," India.

Afghanistan took control of its destiny again in the twentieth century, and in 1919 a new king, Amanullah Khan, came to power determined to bring in Western ideas about government. To my mind, he is one of the most exciting as well as one of the most tragic rulers in Afghan history. Inspired by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's reforms in Turkey, he rushed into creating a civil legal code and a legislative assembly, and advocated reforms such as the emancipation of women and universal education. Atatürk had warned Amanullah to go slowly, good advice that went unheeded. Powerful religious leaders became hostile to Amanullah, claiming that the king had "turned against Allah and Islam!" Proof of this included pictures of Amanullah's wife, Queen Soraya, appearing unveiled at receptions in European capitals.

After ruling for ten years, Amanullah was forced into exile and Afghan society reverted to tribal, authoritarian, and patriarchal mores. Arnold Hunter, an American journalist who spent much of his life in Asia, was shocked by what he viewed as the backwardness of Afghanistan and saw, even then, that its treatment of women was symbolic of the ways in which fundamentalist traditions crippled the nation: "The fundamental problem of Afghanistan was that of their women," he wrote in the 1950s, "the basic issue on which all others hinged. Only by seeing it at first hand, was I able to appreciate how the status of women struck deeply into the roots of Afghan society, strangling and choking minds and bodies. The sight of so many of these formless, wraith-like figures slithering along the thoroughfare like carriers of some dreadful plague has to be seen for its full malignant effect to be truly grasped. It was heart sickening."

Fundamentalists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries seem to have learned a jarring political lesson from that historic period: Maintaining oppressive gender roles is one of the most potent weapons in opposing modernity.

In the 1960s, another king made an attempt to democratize Afghanistan and to once again encourage women's participation in the public sphere. Mohammed Zahir Shah––who had become shah (king) all the way back in 1933 but ceded power to his paternal uncles––took over as an independent ruler in 1963. Zahir Shah was able to introduce a new democratic constitution in 1964 that formalized free elections, parliament, civil rights, women's liberation, and universal suffrage. Ten years of relative stability followed during which the country began to open up again to the rest of the world. However, political dissent against libralism was a powerful force; Zahir Shah was accused of corruption and deposed in a coup led by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan (who was overthrown in his turn by the Communists who seized power in 1978).

During this time, the Cold War continued to intensify and a new Great Game developed between the two most powerful twentieth- century empires, the United States and the Soviet Union. And Afghanistan was once again the playing field. The Soviet government invaded in 1979 while the United States chose covert intervention.

Now I was about to land in this deeply traditional and religious country that was emerging from a fierce ten-year battle against an occupying army, a country that was now apparently mired in a civil war.

Proof that there is reason to be concerned about safety comes when we are told not to worry about the landing, since Afghan pilots have perfected a spiral-descent tactic that avoids the missiles the mujahidin are hurling at the city! We hold our collective breath as the plane begins its twirling descent into Kabul and lands without incident. At the small, empty airport, several international aid workers are astonished to come across three Americans. We are, indeed, rare visitors.

Zahera and Shakira, two women from the All-Afghan Women's Council that is hosting us, greet us and drive us downtown to the three- story Hotel Kabul. We travel through a city that shows little damage from the war. A settlement for some twenty-five hundred years in the Kabul River valley, it is situated at an elevation of six thousand feet, lying in a bowl encircled by the treeless foothills of the Hindu Kush range. The city's beautiful setting is also eminently strategic: it is key to the Khyber Pass and, potentially, control of the Indian subcontinent. The city was spared wholesale destruction during the war, as both the Soviets and the Communist government needed it in order to control the country.

Zahera and Shakira are apologetic that we are not staying at Kabul's luxury hotel, the Continental, situated on one of the hills surrounding the city like a necklace. But it is safer in town. We are told that we cannot leave the hotel without an escort and that we will not see any of the country outside Kabul. They justify the limits of our trip by explaining that the city is swollen with people fleeing from devastated villages, that the borders with Pakistan and Iran are "porous," and that yes, as we have been told, the mujahidin are still battling the government. We are devastated. We had imagined we would be able to travel outside the city and be on our own once in a while.

With many apologies, the two women leave us, and we head down to dinner in the hotel's gloomy, cavernous, and nearly empty dining-room. The old, rambling, yellow stucco hotel is not centrally air-conditioned, the heat is oppressive, and flies are everywhere.

Our hosts have given us our itinerary to review. It is a tight schedule of meetings with women's groups and visits to hospitals, schools, orphanages, and museums — a typical agenda when visiting a country as guests of a sponsoring group. A tide of depression sweeps over me. Although I had taken for granted an agenda such as the one we face, I had assumed that we would then be free to wander on our own and would be taken to see other parts of Afghanistan. How was it that I hadn't taken it in when Miagol told us that the country was in the midst of a civil war?


Excerpted from "Walking the Precipice"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Barbara Bick.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Preface 1

1 Kabul, 1990 3

2 Against the Taliban, 1992-2000 29

3 Journey to the Land of the Mujahidin, 2001 49

4 Khoja Bahauddin 63

5 Faizabad 83

6 The Assassins 101

7 Kabul Redux, 2003 125

Chronology Timeline 160

Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women 163

NEGAR Petition: Statement of Support for the Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women 166

Acknowledgments 168

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