This article is a partnership between The Fuller Project for International Reporting and The New York Times Magazine.
Two dozen Afghan women in their early 20s, dressed in camouflage uniforms, trudge through prickly thistle plants under a nearly full moon. No one dares speak, the silence broken only by too-big army-issued boots crunching to a chorus of stray-dog howls and midsummer cricket chirps. It’s one of the first times these women, all seniors at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul, have taken part in a nighttime exercise. Normally they would be tucked away in their dorm — its hallways plastered with posters of Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart and Col. Latifa Nabizada, Afghanistan’s first female helicopter pilot — surrounded by barbed wire.
Female cadets must adhere to a strict 9 p.m. curfew. But on this warm night, the women smile in the darkness, leaping over ravines and clambering up hills of dirt, spreading out into formation with their rifles in tow. Off in the distance is a flurry of commotion — the pop pop pop of blank rounds fired by their male counterparts; their flares pierce the night sky and set the dry grass ablaze. (The female cadets’ Afghan superiors have not yet allowed them to fire blank rounds or flares as part of a nighttime attack drill; so far, they’ve only had limited daytime firearms training.) Led by a female sergeant known to the women as Sergeant Hanifa, the group is flanked by American and British advisers who advocate drills like this while trying to navigate cultural norms that dictate how Afghan women must act and how they are viewed. In this case, in a bid to recruit more women, academy leadership has assured parents that female cadets won’t be out unsupervised at night, for their own protection.
“I have to do a head count, make sure we have all the lambs,” said Maj. Alli Shields of the British Army, using the nickname given to the women by Afghan male staff. “Or else this will be the first and last exercise.” Next to her stands Lt. Cmdr. Rebekah Gerber of the United States Navy, a senior gender adviser for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, who watches the drill with her hands on her hips, mentally taking notes. She’s one of a dozen advisers from NATO countries working with the Afghan government to integrate and support both men and women across the security sector. The lofty end goal: gender equality. A self-described fiery redhead pushing what she jokingly calls a “ginger gender agenda,” Gerber comes bearing a bold message for the Afghans and her coalition colleagues: “Get on board or get out — it’s happening.” It’s a job Gerber doesn’t take lightly. Deployed halfway across the globe from her four daughters — her second overseas deployment, after serving on a Navy ship in the Persian Gulf — she’s driven by thoughts of her girls back home “and for the women to come.”
Since NATO formally ended its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, drawing down a huge deployment of international forces, the United States and its allies have turned their attention to training, advising and assisting Afghan armed forces, trying to carve out a reality in which Afghanistan is able to defend and secure its own country without billions of dollars in foreign funding and assistance. Within that complex and intensely scrutinized mission is another, perhaps even more difficult, one: bolster the ranks of Afghan women in security forces, train them, promote them and keep them alive. Advisers like Gerber are tasked with leading that charge, part of a NATO policy born in the wake of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, which stresses the importance of women’s involvement in global peace and security. Since then, a growing body of evidence has found that when women play a role in the security sector, take part in peace negotiations and are involved in rebuilding after war, women feel more comfortable reporting sexual violence and nations enjoy a more stable and lasting peace. To enact the resolution and appease international donors eager to support women’s rights, Afghanistan, a United Nations member state, adopted an internationally funded national action plan that details everything from engaging men in addressing violence against women to including women at decision-making levels nationally, regionally and locally.
But 17 years into America’s longest war, in which the argument for protecting and “saving” Afghan women has long shaped the rhetoric to invade and maintain troop presence, their advancement in the security sector is still largely at odds with cultural perceptions of women’s place in society. Progress, as defined by the United States and NATO leadership, has been painfully slow, and there’s concern that programs to recruit and train women have only put them in more danger. Despite billions of United States tax dollars spent on bolstering Afghan troops and paying their salaries — nearly $160 million budgeted in the last three years alone to support female forces — Afghanistan has never come close to its set recruitment benchmarks for women. Those involved in and familiar with NATO gender efforts say it could take generations before real, lasting progress is made for Afghan women in uniform.
Before the Taliban overran war-torn Kabul in 1996, cementing its control over most of the country, women had served in the security forces for decades, though in limited capacities and often facing great backlash. (Col. Latifa Nabizada and her sister braved male colleagues’ pelting them with rocks after enrolling in military flight school in 1989 to become helicopter pilots, the first Afghan women ever to do so in 1991.) Under the Taliban, though, Afghan women found themselves stripped of their rights and confined to their homes, their ambitions tabled — or driven underground. Mothers risked everything, even their lives, to educate their daughters in secret. In 2001, American-led Afghan militias drove the Taliban from the capital. And with their exit came a trickle of renewed freedoms for at least some Afghan women: They’ve been able to attend top universities, anchor television shows and hold jobs in government.But a majority of Afghan women are still absent from public life. Across the country, they live under the firm grip of men. Decisions on marriage and on access to medical professionals, education and employment are not their own to make and are instead made by male relatives. While the current Afghan Constitution, approved in 2004, awards women some hard-earned rights, conservative interpretations of Islamic law still guide Afghan culture. In 2012, the national Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s top religious body, which advises the Afghan presidency, declared that women should be seen as secondary to men, advising women not to mingle in offices or schools with men to whom they’re not related or travel without a male guardian.
Women who dare speak up — about anything — almost instantly find themselves a target. In 2015, a 27-year-old woman named Farkhunda Malikzada confronted a group of men who were reportedly trafficking amulets and Viagra at a shrine in central Kabul. The men responded by falsely accusing her of burning a Quran, which incited a mob to furiously beat her in broad daylight and light her bloodied body on fire, shouting that the Americans had sent her. Police officers nearby — including a female officer named Shamila, who risked her own life by screaming at the men to back off — weren’t able to save her. She died of her injuries.
Even joining the security forces is today considered a dangerous act, one that challenges the very fabric of Afghan culture and notions of how women should live their lives. In this male-dominated environment, Afghan women in uniform are often met with disdain. The community views them as “whores,” according to an Afghan woman in the special forces who serves alongside men and is tasked with searching women and children during raids. She is the sole provider for her family of seven. Many women who sign up to join the security forces, particularly the police, do so for financial reasons. Many are widows or women without a male guardian to support them and, as a result, already face ostracization in their communities. It’s not just a job; it’s a last resort for survival.
For women like Shamila, a 39-year-old police sergeant and single mother, joining the police force was an act of defiance after escaping from her violent Taliban husband, who forcefully married and raped her as a child. “I’m going to kill you,” he would say at night, dangling a noose. She would hold up the Quran and beg for her life. In 2008, her son helped her flee from Pakistan to Kabul, after she spoke up against the suicide vest hanging in their house and her husband nearly beat her to death. Italian doctors pieced together her broken limbs. After she healed, Shamila worked as a part-time cook and cleaner. But she wanted more: job security and a higher wage. Mostly, she said, grinning widely and flashing a silver tooth, she “wanted to be someone.” Now she works at a police station in Kabul, where she earns a steady wage managing the station’s finances, but also, at times, she handles criminal cases: a woman who lit herself on fire to commit suicide; a woman who killed her husband after he demanded that she sell sex for money; a woman killed by her brother, who slashed her open with a knife. It’s a dangerous job, she said, one that barely pays enough to support her and her teenage son and daughter and to afford their one-bedroom apartment, and one in which she has “only made more enemies.” Even so, she wakes up excited for work every day.
Previously, the effort to recruit women was seen as a numbers game, with the Afghan Ministry of Defense pushing for bigger recruitment numbers in the face of intense international pressure. Resolute Support, the NATO-led “train, advise and assist” mission in Afghanistan, calculates that there are currently 3,231 women in the Afghan National Police, 1,312 women in the Afghan National Army, which includes the air force, and 122 women in the Afghan Special Security Forces, making up, in aggregate, roughly 1.4 percent of Afghan security forces. All but 75 of them are based in Kabul. Those numbers are estimates, said Resolute Support, because NATO and Afghan records detailing force strength often do not match.
Resolute Support has shifted its focus away from lofty recruitment goals. In 2010, the goal was to have 10 percent of security forces be women by 2020. In 2015, that goal was scrapped for a more attainable one: 5,000 women in the army and 10,000 women in the police force by 2025. Now, the goal is to have at least 10 percent of the Afghan National Police and 3 percent of the Afghan National Army filled by women by 2021, with an eventual goal of 10 percent in the army. With those goals come new focus on supporting and carving out opportunities for the women who have already come forward to serve — for whom there is little room for advancement — through language and professional development courses, overseas training opportunities, mentorship and improved access to adequate facilities and equipment. NATO gender advisers say they are instructing Afghan counterparts to slow down recruitment of women “until we know where to put them,” according to Gerber.
“We can get them in the door, but without positions for them, they’ll never be used effectively,” said Capt. Kirrily Dearing of the Royal Australian Air Force Group, head of Resolute Support’s gender directorate, to whom Gerber reports. “It’s not just about numbers.” Afghan women lament that there is often no clear, or honest, path to promotion. Well-trained and educated women find themselves forced into tea-making and cleaning roles, regardless of their job descriptions. And there are not enough mid- to high-level women in security forces or supportive men to whom younger women can look for guidance. To meet the new benchmarks, Resolute Support will have to work with the Afghan government to recode existing male-only positions to be gender-neutral and increase the number of women-only positions so that women are able, and encouraged, to apply for jobs ranging from intelligence to mechanics. Previously, pilot positions to fly the ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle — a small, low-altitude surveillance drone — were closed to women. Those positions will be recoded so women can fill them, a bid to recruit more women into intelligence. Once the positions are recoded and NATO has a better of idea of the positions available to women, and where they’re needed, Gerber said there will be a push to recruit women in schools, computer firms, libraries and engineering firms. “We’re focused on quality, not quantity,” Gerber said. “We want educated women. They have to be smarter and stronger than the men.” That’s a steep task in a country where an estimated 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. And many women like Shamila can read but do not have a high school education. Language and literacy courses can help with recruitment in areas like Kandahar and Helmand, where there’s a critical need for women in security forces but a shortage of candidates with the requisite language or professional skills. “Everything is gradual,” Gerber said. “But honestly, we have to steer the ship slowly. Making too many sudden changes will cause the ship to list and maybe even sink.”
NATO and the Afghan government have tried a variety of ways to recruit women, with limited success — from recruitment posters to handpicking promising women to offering incentive pay. But incentive pay has also led to resentment and harassment by male colleagues because women end up making more money than the men. Such incentives run the risk of causing more harm to the very women they’re meant to support, said Wazhma Frogh, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and founder of the Kabul-based Women & Peace Studies Organization. Rewarded by NATO for their recruitment and determination, the women are often seen as “the darlings of the West” by both colleagues and their communities, Frogh said, who has for years worked on issues of women’s integration across the security, political and civil society sectors. It’s a dangerous label, one that points to Afghans viewing women’s empowerment in the security forces and elsewhere as a Western-initiated and funded endeavor. “People say they’re being pushed by the foreigners,” she said.
In November 2017, a video anonymously posted to social media went viral in Afghanistan; it reportedly showed Col. Ghulam Rasoul Laghmani, the head surgeon in the Afghan Air Force, in a graphic sexual encounter with a female subordinate. She asked for a promotion, only to have him demand sex in return. She secretly filmed the encounter, seeking accountability in a system where women have little means to report harassment and abuse without further endangering themselves. “An investigation did not yield results,” says an Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman, who states that Laghmani was still penalized and is no longer employed by the air force. NATO and Afghan sources familiar with the situation said that he is still working with the military in a different capacity.
There is no complaint mechanism, said Humaira Rasuli, director of Medica Afghanistan, an Afghan organization advocating and providing legal assistance for survivors of violence and harassment. Some of their clients are women in security forces. “Women need to be able to complain and trust that there will be confidentiality and no effect on their work,” she said, a point she’s stressed in conversations with the Ministry of Interior. “We’re actively working on that.” The incident captured in the video wasn’t an isolated one. Women are often told they must offer sexual favors to male superiors in exchange for advancements or raises. “They want to put you in their trap,” said one mid-ranking Afghan army lieutenant, who holds a leadership position training Afghan women. She asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. Women seen as threats by their colleagues are often punished with rumors of sexual impropriety — rumors that can ruin careers, and lives, in a culture where a woman’s “honor” is everything. Sex outside marriage, called zina, is illegal under Afghan law, and hundreds are in jail for these, often unfounded, “moral crimes.” The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has noted that there are several hundred reports every year of Afghan women dying by domestic violence or “honor killings,” in which brothers, fathers or other relatives kill women — and sometimes men — to restore “honor” to the family after a suspected moral indiscretion, like a romantic relationship out of wedlock or a marriage refusal. But many killings and attacks are never reported.
There are not even sexual harassment and assault policies in place to protect women employed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior from the many types of threats they face. It’s a major, though long delayed, goal of Resolute Support to help draft and promote better policies, as well as ways in which men and women can report sexual harassment and assault. After missing a deadline in March to deliver the new policies, Resolute Support held a round-table discussion in June with NATO advisers and representatives from the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior. The meeting started off tense, with one gray-haired Afghan policy adviser in fatigues proclaiming that there was no need for change and that “people already know where to report sexual harassment.” Gerber’s eyes widened. “We need to shake the tree,” said Marghaly Faqirzai Ghaznavi, an Afghan Ministry of Interior adviser on human rights, women and children’s affairs, and the only Afghan woman who was in the room. The meeting ended with a promise: Representatives from the ministries would take the NATO-drafted policy into consideration. Months later, no policy has been formalized. American advisers are still hopeful that they can firm something up in the coming months. “Our job is not to hand them an international community-accepted policy or a plan easy for us to implement,” said Gerber. “We want them to do it themselves.”
While they wait on their government to take action, Afghan women continue to face great risks. Death threats drove Latifa Nabizada, the pioneering helicopter pilot, to leave Afghanistan. She’s now living in Austria, where she and her daughter have been granted asylum. In May, the United States granted asylum to 26-year-old Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s widely celebrated and America-trained first female fixed-wing pilot. She became an icon for women after graduating from pilot school in 2013, and also a target, she said. Rahmani’s lawyer insists her life would be at “grave risk” if she were made to return.
There are critics — not just the Taliban — who say that the United States has no place dictating how Afghanistan should run its country. And there are others who say that American and international funding and pressure are essential to push forward gender efforts, but that such efforts have been marked by flawed execution and limited results. Women across the security sector are “what Afghanistan needs,” said Frogh of the High Peace Council. They’re essential to everything from responding to domestic violence cases to searching the homes and bodies of suspected militants when women are involved — something that is culturally unacceptable for men to do. But there’s a lack of political will, she warned. “If [Afghanistan] wants it or not — that’s a different thing.” One thing is certain, she said: The current strategy is simply not working. There’s an inherent power difference between foreign troops — often stationed in Afghanistan for a year or less before rotating out — and their Afghan counterparts. “You cannot mentor people with a language and attitude you don’t understand,” Frogh said.
Gerber, an intelligence officer trained as a missile analyst, had no experience working on gender policy before arriving in Kabul, apart from serving as a victim’s advocate at United States Northern Command in Colorado. Instead, she largely learned on the job in what started out, she said, as a “throw spaghetti against the wall and hope it sticks kind of thing.” Despite what are usually good intentions, Frogh said, rather than top-down efforts, more attention must be paid to community-based and community-led security reform, where Afghan women are engaged with their own communities at a local level, providing direct solutions. That way, she said, “people start connecting” and see the women are honorable. “It’s long past the time where we should be ‘winning hearts and minds’ directly,” said A. Heather Coyne, who worked on community policing and women issues in Afghanistan with the United States military and United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2014. She added that the international community has largely not taken into account what Afghan women truly need and has put them into more danger. “If they’re working with advocates and helping to empower those advocates, that’s great. But when you do it as the international community trying to convince people . . . you know what? You’re going home. It’s not your business to go in and try to convince ministries to do certain things.”
The international community’s top-down approach, pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the country, has stoked what the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction calls “rampant” corruption. For years, the United States provided funds with “no conditions” to the Defense and Interior Ministries, the latter institution called the “heart of corruption” by President Ashraf Ghani. It’s been a major hurdle for NATO forces working on programs meant to empower and support Afghan women, with advisers monitoring ministry budgets worth millions. Part of the problem, said Afghans working with women in the security sector, is that NATO pushes forward gender initiatives themselves or contracts directly with American companies who don’t have their feet on the ground. The United States Agency for International Development recently came under fire for its $216 million Promote program that is meant to support more than 75,000 Afghan women in leadership, development, economic and civil society roles over five years. Contracting with America-based Chemonics International, Tetra Tech ARD and Development Alternatives, three firms that have collectively reaped more than a billion dollars from the war in Afghanistan, USAID cannot say whether the program has made a positive impact despite spending $89.7 million over three years.
“So much money is spent,” laments one Afghan women’s rights advocate who asked not to be named out of fear of losing Western funding. The United States thinks big, she said, but mechanisms are often “not well adapted to the context” of Afghanistan.
For NATO troops, interacting with civil society is almost impossible because of the crippling security situation. They have very little face time with their Afghan counterparts, apart from on military bases and in ministries. Gerber is not allowed to leave Resolute Support or other NATO bases without several “Guardian Angels,” NATO units tasked with providing force protection to coalition troops and advisers from threats like green-on-blue insider attacks — when an Afghan ally, like a police officer or army lieutenant, attacks coalition forces. The Marshal Fahim National Defense University, where Gerber helps train women at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, has been targeted numerous times (most recently in January), both by suicide bombers and threats from within, most notably a 2014 attack in which an Afghan soldier fired on Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene of the Army, killing him. He was the highest-ranking American officer to die in combat on foreign soil since the Vietnam War.
On a recent June afternoon at Resolute Support, an Australian sergeant opened the door of the gender office and stuck his head in, grinning big. “How’s the war? Are we winning?” he asked, joking that it didn’t look good from his side of the base. Gerber rose from her desk. Above her, the iconic World War I icon Christy Girl stared down from a poster, exclaiming, “Gee!! I wish I were a man, I’d join the Navy.” “We’re winning,” Gerber said. “One woman at a time.”
But away from the heavily fortified NATO headquarters, the war looks different for women like Shamila. From inside her sparse and filthy police station, she fights to support her children as a single mother, to help the women who need her, to stay alive. In grainy, graphic cellphone video showing Farkhunda’s 2015 brutal murder, captured by onlookers and attackers, Shamila stands guard in front of the shrine where Farkhunda hid. She had been at the tailor when she heard a woman was in trouble and rushed over with her daughter in tow, hoping she could somehow intervene. In the video, Farkhunda pleads for a female police officer. Shamila arrived unarmed and out of uniform, placing her body between Farkhunda and the mob. “Get her!” the men scream, climbing over the metal fence to breach the shrine, holding rocks and pieces of wood. Within 10 minutes, Shamila had to flee: They could have killed her daughter. “If I didn’t have my daughter with me, I would have done something,” Shamila said with regret. “I would have died there [to save Farkhunda]. Or I would have killed someone.”
Still, it’s moments like this that keep Shamila going, to send a message to Afghan women. “Never lose hope,” she said, wiping away tears with her head scarf.
Sophia Jones is an Istanbul-based journalist and senior editor with the Fuller Project, a journalism nonprofit reporting on global issues impacting women.
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