I’d been living in Afghanistan three weeks when my guide, a young Afghan named Sharif Sahak, showed me a photograph of the country’s only known female warlord, Bibi Ayisha, nom de guerre: Commander Pigeon. It was late 2013, the Americans were preparing to leave, and Sharif had heard that the commander was training a new militia of female jihadists to fight the Taliban. In the photograph, she looked to be about 200 pounds and 60 years old. A large woman with black eyes made small by folds of skin. A beaked nose protruded from a wide flat face. She held her machine gun against her bosom like a bouquet of roses. A few girls dressed in bright loose tunics holding AK-47s stood at her side, with ammo wound like gold pythons about their necks. “Hot chicks with AKs,” Sharif remarked.
Everybody in Kabul knew about Commander Pigeon, but no one agreed on a narrative. The Afghans accused her of robbery and murder. A few suspected she worked with Taliban commander Mullah Dad-e Khuda, who escaped from Bagram prison in 2008, and a local warlord called the Green Imam. Together they supposedly controlled all the drug-trafficking routes in the north. One person told me, “She has many houses in Kabul but prefers to live in the mountains among the animals.” She didn’t have any of the usual warlord stories. No acid throwing or biting off chicken heads, or leaving prisoners in vats to die. She was not like Commander Zardad who kept a human dog on a chain to maul and sometimes eat people. She was a woman and she killed men—while wearing a flowery dress.
They called her Commander Pigeon because she moved and killed with the elegance of a bird.
According to locals, Commander Pigeon was born in the village of Gawi, and her father was named Haji Dawlat and he had seven wives, and his second wife had ten children, and of these children, Commander Pigeon was the most loved. She carried a gun at age 14, the same year she married Shad Muhammad, a businessman whose reputation was said to suffer because he allowed Commander Pigeon to wear pants. He died of a mysterious illness. Then, in 1979, the Soviets swarmed her mountain and murdered her son. She turned to jihad. She killed the commando, organized a militia of 150 men to fight the Soviets, and rode alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance. They called her Commander Pigeon because she moved and killed with the elegance of a bird.
When the Americans arrived in 2001, the northeast was a mess of insurgent groups governed by warlords like Commander Pigeon. The United Nations started a program called the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG), and by 2006, DIAG disarmed about 60,000 militants. Then the government faced a second problem: unemployed combatants. The United Nations invested in more programs, including business courses for ex-combatants, focused on job skills. But most of the warriors, like Commander Pigeon, didn’t want to disarm. Once the Americans left, factional fighting would start up again. They needed their weapons. Commander Pigeon already regretted giving up her vintage World War II British .303 Lee-Enfield rifle.
This year, an Australian security consulting firm conducted a survey on inspirational Afghan women, and their research led them to Commander Pigeon. On her public Facebook page, one fan wrote: “She has proven to the world that women of Afghanistan are not victims; she’s more stronger then any women in the world today.” She certainly sounded very different from any of the Afghan women I had met or heard about. I’d been talking to women in shelters, victims of domestic violence, or kidnapped girls working as sex slaves for commanders. One of them, a teenage girl, said Commander Pigeon was a hero. After all, since 2001, Americans have invested in infrastructure allowing women to attend school or gain positions of power. But the month I arrived, Afghans shipped 30-year-old Setara to Turkey to get her lips and nose sewn back on after her husband cut them off with a kitchen knife. A pregnant schoolteacher named Malalai was hanged and her body dumped near a foreign base. No one could save Negar, the top female police officer in Helmand, after she was shot in the neck by men on motorbikes. And yet no one has managed to kill Commander Pigeon. For 34 years, she has commanded a group of armed fighters from her stronghold 250 miles north of Kabul in Baghlan Province, the same region where the British said Afghans sliced the stomachs of Russian soldiers and left them to die so that their organs might bake in the sun.
Sharif, a clean-shaven 28-year old, was friends with the newly appointed police chief of Baghlan Province, a man named General Amarakhail, and he said he could help arrange a visit.
“I think she’ll like you,” Sharif said.
Some Afghans believe cannibalistic females haunt the Hindu Kush. They are simian and boar-tusked and have long, floating hair. They eat corpses. Commander Pigeon lived on the other side of the Hindu Kush, over a pass called the Khotal-e Salang. According to the Afghan Analysts Network, Baghlan Province has between 2,500 and 3,000 Taliban, inhabiting an area about the size of Connecticut.
On a Sunday morning, Sharif and I, along with a driver and a photographer named Lorenzo, packed into a small Toyota Corolla with a prayer rug and headed north out of Kabul on Highway 1. We left just as the first winter snows were falling, and Sharif told us about the avalanches of 2010 that killed hundreds of people on the pass. “There are more ways to die in Afghanistan,” Sharif said, “than anywhere else in the world.” The Salang pass, at its highest, skims 12,723 feet. It’s a tight, twisting section of potholed road, clogged with Pakistani jingle trucks, scattered with memorials. A Soviet-built tunnel cuts almost two miles through the heart of the mountains.
Snow fell and the roads darkened to mud. The men put on chains and I put on a burka. Sharif said it looked strange. He explained: Don’t talk. Don’t smack gum. Don’t lean your elbow against the window like you keep doing. Cover your legs. Don’t get out of the car. Be a good girl. Most importantly, cover the hair. Hide your passport. We are a Tajik rock band and you are the singer going to sing for Commander Pigeon.
“Don’t leave me alone with her again,” I said. But he did.
Why Tajikistan? It’s where Afghans go for women and alcohol. “It makes you cheap,” Sharif said. “But no one will touch you in a burka.”
We passed makeshift prayer rooms webbed with brightly colored rugs, roofs built of bronze artillery shells. Every few miles, weather-worn paintings of Ahmad Shah Massoud smiled out at us from old concrete walls. Traffic was dense, and most of the cars didn’t have chains. A few cars spun out. The road had 100-foot drops and no guardrails. We recognized the cars by their stickers, nonsensical phrases slapped on rear windows: Shir Panshir, I Miss You Sweet Dream, Mafia Love. We found Shir Panshir flipped over with its wheels spinning.
Commander Pigeon’s son called every two hours or so from the compound’s only cell phone to learn our location and to ask us to bring along a car battery. I asked Sharif why he gave false details of our whereabouts. “We can’t trust her,” he said. “Maybe she would plant an IED and blow us up.”
We reached Pul-e-Khumri before dark, seven hours later than planned, and met the general at his office at police headquarters. Amarakhail greeted us wearing pantaloons tucked into polished combat boots. Assistants served us tea and bowls of pistachios while Amarakhail told us about his efforts to reform a police force full of drug addicts and criminals. “It’s much better now,” he said. He put a pistachio in his mouth. “But you have to sleep here tonight because of the bandits. We killed three last night.”
The policeman offered us a room in the compound, empty but for some blankets, pillows, a television, and a single propane-fueled heater. They fed us dinner, and we feasted on barbequed chicken and turnips around the heater’s orange glow. The electricity was out. Muffled human wails came up through the floors. “They’re torturing people,” Sharif said. No one could sleep.
We moved to the room across the hall and locked the door, and Sharif and the driver talked about jinn, or ghosts, that they had seen. The driver told us a story about an Afghan truck driver who broke down on his way from Jalalabad to Kabul and two jinni kids started dancing around his truck. He begged them for help, and he said they took him to some kind of jinni village with rides and candy and endless sunshine. “There are a lot of jinn in Afghanistan,” Sharif said, “because of all the dead people.”
The electricity returned and the television flickered. Sharif found an Afghan music video. “I love this song,” he said. “It’s about violence against women.” The last song this female singer sang went like this: I don’t want to die young. Don’t kill me now. I have dreams. Her husband did not want her to sing and so he shot her.
The next morning, the general introduced us to our escort: six men in a machine-gun-mounted Ford Ranger. They wore Kevlar vests and ammunition belts and mixed desert camo with official police attire and checkered scarves over their mouths. Their leader was a neatly dressed man with an enormous mustache that looked as if it had been painted on with a single stroke. He instructed us to keep our distance and pretend that we didn’t know them.
We entered a wolf-inhabited plain. The road was a thin stain in the snow. Hours passed in silence before the police commander with the enormous mustache called and said we would soon arrive at Commander Pigeon’s village. We stopped about a hundred yards outside a gathering of mud brick homes.
The villagers spilled outside. They talked and pointed at us.
The commander called and said, “Wrong village.”
Everyone got out of the cars and yelled at each other.
“If the Taliban were here,” said Lorenzo, the photographer, “we’d already be dead.”
We backed away, but the Ranger stalled. Suddenly, a truck carrying four armed men appeared out of the woods and braked quickly, spraying us with snow. I asked Sharif who they were. “Remember,” he said, “if they were the Taliban you would already be dead.” The truck had blue sirens and a gunner in the back. The men wore black clothes and had very little facial hair. Not the Taliban.
It was the Afghan secret police, or the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The group started in Afghanistan in 2001, at the beginning of the occupation, and there were about 30,000 of them in the provinces. The NDS guys said we were loud. Everyone knew we were here. They wouldn’t let us go to Commander Pigeon’s unless they escorted us.
We agreed and packed into the back of the NDS truck. My feet rested on a loaded RPG as the commander sat in the front seat and discussed his concerns. “Maybe the Taliban will leave an IED for us? Or maybe Commander Pigeon’s men will leave an IED? What do you want to do?” He said it wasn’t safe to stay at Commander Pigeon’s but it was too late to make it back to Pul-e- Khumri by dark. We would have to stay the night.
On the way, I asked the commander what he thought about the Pigeon. He said the locals went to her for help solving their personal problems. Most recently, a husband and wife came to her. The wife’s husband beat her. Commander Pigeon took a stick and beat the husband until he bled.
There was no road to her house, only a partially frozen river. We broke the ice and the commander maneuvered the truck through the water like a horse. Clouds moved like herds over the mountains and the sun left a bruised yellow color on the cliffs. “This is the magical kingdom,” Sharif said.
The compound was set high on the cliff’s edge and we saw her soldiers, 16 of them, on the bluff. Skinny men in traditional Afghan shalwar kameez, holding AKs and RPGs, ranging in age from 20 to 50. We followed them up a switchback. I hoped to find Commander Pigeon among her fighters, but I didn’t see any women. A wood gate led to a mud courtyard tangled in laundry lines, each heavy with clothes, polka-dot underwear, and wide pants. The compound was a low one-story building with a thatched roof, covered in nesting birds. Children carried AKs. The youngest fighter was a 13-year-old in a Harry Potter sweater.
We were greeted by her eldest son, Haji Wazir, who looked to be about 40. He wore sports sandals and a motorcycle jacket with the collar popped. “Have you ever seen a turkey slaughtered?” he asked. “Look.”
He grabbed a turkey. He held its long neck and sawed at the throat. The blood fanned brightly into the dirt and snow. He tossed the head on the ground.
“It’s the magical kingdom,” I told Sharif, “but it’s very dark.”
Commander Pigeon let out a high-pitched barking sound but didn’t come outside to greet us. I took my shoes off and entered the dark room. She was alone, sitting on the floor near the window in a black flower-print dress, massaging her bare feet. A white veil covered her head like a cocoon. Her eyes were bruised-looking and close together. It took her a long time to stand up. She walked like someone who had ridden a horse too long—her legs pressed apart by the girth of her thighs.
“How do I know you won’t hurt me?” she said. She took my hand. She was short and heavy. “How do I know you’re not a suicide bomber?”
I handed her the car battery like an offering, but she said nothing. She tossed it into a small cubby in the wall.
A turkey stared at us through the window. “You came all this way to see me,” she said. “What do you want to know?” She tilted her head, examined me. “My eyes are bad. Are you Muslim?” I was not. This confused her. “What about Doomsday?” she said. She told me I could become a Muslim if I recited a prayer called shahada. “It would make me so happy if you were Muslim.”
I looked at Sharif. “Go ahead,” he said. “Doesn’t matter.”
The soldiers gathered to watch. “Repeat after me,” she said. I repeated the shahada in Dari. There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. I was Muslim.
She nodded and coughed into her hand: “You have made me happy. Will you bring me to America now and take care of my bad knees? I have terrible knees. I have this sickness. When I sit down, it’s hard to get up.” Commander Pigeon scratched her face. “I don’t trust you. I don’t believe you. You’re lucky. A month ago we were arguing and killing each other, but then we had a meeting about enmity. You’re very lucky we didn’t search you five times over.”
A young girl, maybe four years old, climbed onto Commander Pigeon’s lap.
“What do you want to know?”
“Where are your female fighters?”
“But don’t you want to eat?” she said.
“Not really,” I said. Candy wrappers glittered on the floor and bits of stale food stuck to my feet.
I asked about the first time she took up a weapon.
“When you hold a weapon, you don’t cry, you just shoot.”
She dumped a bag of almonds on the ground and spread them around with her hands. She picked one up, cracked it open with her thumb, and sucked the meat from the shell.
“You guys don’t care about war. You will write your thing and go. I’m killing Taliban twelve months of the year.”
“Will you fight today?” I said.
Her hand dropped and she looked at Sharif. “What is wrong with her?”
“How often do you train?”
She sighed again. One of the children farted and Commander Pigeon started screaming at her.
We followed the Pigeon outside. Wazir beheaded a second turkey and rose from behind the carcass with dripping hands. Her militia stood in a line at the base of the hill, blue-lipped and shivering.
Commander Pigeon is a collector of lost and exiled men. The quietest soldier once belonged to the Taliban. He had been captured by local police, escaped, and having heard about Commander Pigeon, walked miles to reach her home. He fell to his knees and begged for protection. She made him swear loyalty. I asked how she knew he wouldn’t rebel. “I’m watching him closely,” she said. “I’m converting Taliban to normal people.”
She said the Taliban had killed two of her brothers, three nephews, two nieces, and five other relatives she didn’t name. On a Sunday, the first day of Eid, the Muslim holiday, a few family members, including her son, were offering evening prayers at the local mosque when a Talib strapped with explosives walked inside and blew himself up.
She hated the Taliban more than the Soviets, but the Soviets marked the beginning of jihad. Summertime, she remembered, about noon. The watermelons were ripe. She had been in her bedroom, talking and drinking tea with the women. Her son was cutting grass and her uncle milked the cows. Her whole family was outside tending the farm when the Russian commandos landed on the hill. They shot her son dead. She had no weapons and so she picked up a scythe and killed the commando who did it. She killed for hours and stole weapons from corpses. There were bodies everywhere. They hung from the trees. No man questioned her.
Commander Pigeon has bragged that she cried when Massoud died, but she did not cry over the bodies of her sons.
Then I said, “I need to use the bathroom.”
The Harry Potter kid showed me where to go—up a dirt trail, near the back of the compound. A thin veiled woman sat in a chair by a bucket of rocks. She didn’t look like a fighter. She handed me a rock and I put the rock in my pocket. The kid ran off. The woman showed me to a wide dirt area. I was peeing when Commander Pigeon came up behind me. She leaned over and watched me, and then left as quickly as she came.
When I returned, she pretended as if nothing had happened.
Commander Pigeon flicked her wrist and the men scattered: “Go. Kill the Taliban.” They followed her fingers toward the hill. The ex-Taliban soldier crawled on all fours, aimed his AK-47, and pretended to shoot his old friends. The others sprinted across the snow. A few fist-pumped the air with AKs. One of them sat down and smoked a cigarette.
“This is it?” I said.
“It’s a desert,” Commander Pigeon said, “but I live here.”
“Where are the women?”
She pointed to a small house separate from the compound. It’s customary in Afghanistan for women to stay hidden from foreign men, but I was surprised Commander Pigeon allowed for it. The hierarchy in her compound didn’t seem that different from that of a male warlord. “They make the food,” she said. “They do a good job cooking and shooting.” The rest were in town living with their husbands.
I asked if I could see her weapons stash, and she said she couldn’t tell me anything. She nodded at the intelligence officer. “I have plenty of grenades,” she said. “If the Taliban come, I just pull a grenade and throw it. I just keep throwing. It’s a great location for grenades.” She boasted about going to Hamid Karzai’s guesthouse, eating pomegranates with her fingers, receiving bags of cash to bring back to her mountain to trade for grenades, goats, and turkeys, so she’d be strong to kill the Taliban.
Years ago, General Abdul Sayedkhili, chief of Baghlan Province, and his troops tried to forcibly disarm her, but a doctor in the village tipped her off and she had time to hide her weapons. It was winter, she said, one of the coldest nights in January. The sounds of a barking dog penetrated her sleep. Outside a troop of policemen on horseback were coming down the mountain. She and Wazir sprinted outside. Wazir hid beneath a blanket, and Commander Pigeon in the shadow of a rock face.
The policemen knocked on the door. No one answered. The general walked inside, searched the rooms and told the policemen to break everything made of glass. When there was nothing more to break, the general stepped outside, took off his gloves, and yelled the commander’s name.
They searched the yard and quickly found Wazir. “Where’s Commander Pigeon?” the general said.
“Over the mountains with the horses.”
The general slapped him. “Liar,” he said. “You have seventy men.”
Commander Pigeon loaded her rifle. She wanted to kill him, or at least a few of his men. “Seventy?” Wazir said. He asked him to feel for heat in the rooms. To search for the food that would feed these men.
The general returned to the house. He ran his hands along the cold pipes. He discovered a single box of cookies.
Commander Pigeon pulled the trigger and the bullet hit the ground. The general and his men thought it came from far away, from over the mountain among the horses. They gathered their weapons and left.
Commander Pigeon called police headquarters: “You son of a bitch. You idiots. Did my father kill your father? You came to my house and started breaking shit for no reason? You’re really stupid. You bastard men. You are former mujahedin. I’m former mujahedin. This is not good.”
She walked to Pul-e-Khumri and stayed with her sister and brother-in-law, who advised her to flee. They gave her some money and a goat, and then her nephew handed her off to a doctor who would take her to Kabul.
So it was the group of them—the doctor, the goat, the nephew, the driver, and Commander Pigeon—packed into a car, heading south on Highway 1. The police eventually found them and began to shoot. The car spun into a rock face. Commander Pigeon lost consciousness and woke up alone in her car with the goat. She had blood on her hands and wounds on her legs. The doctor must have fled. Commander Pigeon wrapped herself in a blanket, slipped out of the car, and walked until she found a dry ditch. She collapsed, too tired to move, and slept on the frozen ground where she lay. A large white animal appeared by her side. It watched her. It wanted to eat her, she knew. Commander Pigeon continued on. Then a man called her name. It was her nephew, but she was delirious and couldn’t see.
“Don’t tell. Don’t tell,” she said. “You’re a coward if you turn a woman into the government.”
“Just keep walking,” he said, “walk on through the ditch. There’s a house up the road, and they’re going to take care of you.” The nephew had a friend in a house down the road, and called to arrange for Commander Pigeon’s visit. When she arrived, they let her inside. The dogs howled and howled and the neighbors woke and the police arrived. But because they were all men, they couldn’t touch her. They had to wait for the policewomen to arrive from the station at Pul-e-Khumri. So Commander Pigeon escaped through the window. She walked home in the dark.
Dinnertime. Wazir arrived with the turkeys and rice cooked in oil extracted from the trees in the mountains. Commander Pigeon sent the men, everyone but Wazir, to a room across the courtyard. Three young women arrived carrying plates of flatbread. The women sat on their knees and folded their hands together. These were her supposed fighters, wrapped in pink and turquoise veils, smoothing rice into slick golden mounds on silver-colored platters. They moved in unison, stacking plates, scooping rice, folding bread. Commander Pigeon tore at the meat. She gripped the breast, and spread the leg until the skin broke and released steam. She broke ligaments, tendons, and a blue tangle of vein. She raised the meat to her mouth and tasted a curve of dark thigh. The meat cleaved between her fingers. The steam curled our hair.
Wazir and the women carried plates to the men. Commander Pigeon continued to pick meat from the carcass. She pushed a plate toward me and I began to eat. She tossed the leftovers to the children. They ate it off the floor.
I wasn’t eating the meat because Commander Pigeon kept grabbing it with her hands, covered in saliva and dirt, and because I had watched the turkey die and bleed. Commander Pigeon pointed at the meat. I politely ate a few pieces. I said I was full, and she slid over to me and pried the meat between my lips. She wouldn’t stop. The snow was climbing up the window. She made noises and mimed a hand touching her face. She mimed digging and crying. “Sharif,” I said. “Sharif!” I thought maybe the others were dead. My stomach ached. Her fingers slipped in and out of my mouth. She fed me. It was a kind of terrible nurture. The quiet soldier who used to belong to the Taliban opened the door. The wind came inside and carried snow with it. He squatted, held his AK, and watched.
Hours later, when Sharif and the others returned, I was collapsed against the wall. I told him what happened. “Don’t leave me alone with her again,” I said. But he did. Men were not allowed to sleep in the same room as women, Commander Pigeon said. If we all wanted to stay together, we could sleep in the barn without heat. The temperature was ten below zero. Sharif said he would be OK with it, but I didn’t want us to freeze to death in the barn.
Sharif suggested that we keep one of the policemen on duty outside.
Commander Pigeon slapped the ground: “I told you not to worry about Taliban. I have my guys on patrol now. Thirty days we’ve had peace from the Taliban, otherwise I’d be out on the mountain, too. This is my kingdom and when they die, this is the reserve force.”
She flapped her hand at me: “Just go to bed as if you were in America.”
“How many are on patrol?”
“Thirty,” she said. Outside the hills were bare and bright.
“She’s lying,” Sharif said. “There’s no one out there.”
Sharif sat down next to me. He said he had something he needed to say. “Did you know Commander Pigeon followed you to the bathroom?” I nodded. He said afterward she came back and announced I was a virgin.
“What does it mean?”
“No clue,” he said, and then he left to go to the men’s room. I was alone again with Commander Pigeon.
The women cleared plates stacked with apple cores and bones. Commander Pigeon and the women tucked me into a bed on the floor. They dragged two comforters over my body, wedged the fabric under my arms, and slipped a soiled pillow beneath my head. Hours later, in the dark, she unrolled a sleeping mattress next to mine and slept close to me. She buried her face into my shoulder and snored. I kept my eyes open. The warlord twitched from what I imagined were terrible dreams.
The next day, on the way home, the policemen started shooting vultures out of the sky. One wearing fake Oakleys had the best shot, taken from the back of the Corolla. The bullet went through one bird and out another. It was strangely beautiful, I admit, to see them die. He stepped out of the car and stood over the birds. I asked if he wanted to eat them. He said he didn’t. He just wanted to kill them.
Sometimes writers get the best of their subjects—but sometimes they get the best of you. Commander Pigeon was an old decrepit warlord, a broken-down woman. Lonely, she survived on attention, on her ability to inspire fear through the power of her own myth. In Afghanistan, the ability to create a mythology is powerful, maybe even more powerful than military prowess.
One winter, she had told me, a barefoot man appeared just beyond the gate and stumbled to her door. Commander Pigeon was alone. He wanted bread. Commander Pigeon told him she had nothing: “Who do you think I am, an American?” But the beggar wouldn’t leave. “I need you,” he said. “I don’t have a man to search you,” she said, “and how do I know you’re not a suicide bomber?” The beggar looked at the ground and left. He disappeared into the snow. All night she tossed and turned, worried he would return to murder her. Later that night, a dead soldier appeared in her dream. Even in the dream she knew he was dead. He comforted her and said, “That man won’t hurt you.” Commander Pigeon asked to see the soldier’s wounds. He opened his shirt and she recognized gunshot wounds. The dead soldier was a little kid she’d raised up. Now he lived as a ghost on her mountain.
Jen Percy is the author of the nonfiction book Demon Camp (2014) about PTSD in America.