Female Afghan Soldiers Face a Battle on All Fronts

The number of female recruits is plummeting and the future of Afghan women in the forces is far from certain

Lynzy Billing – October 05, 2019

Photography: Lynzy Billing

AAfghanistan’s national forces are at the forefront of the war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, and the reality on the ground is sobering: the soldiers are outnumbered by the Taliban in their outposts, casualties are high, and the body count (on both sides) increases daily. According to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, an estimated 45,000 security force personnel have been killed since 2014. Soldiers work long hours for low wages — often paid late — and are underequipped, with insufficient weapons and supplies to defend the provinces.

With low recruitment levels, rising numbers of casualties, and relentless territorial gains by the Taliban and armed opposition groups, the strength of the Afghan forces is now at its lowest level in four years, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Two years ago, Kabul’s military training academy churned out enthusiastic recruits, eager to serve in the forces and proud to be part of the effort to secure their country. The once bustling female dormitories offered a safe space for divorcées and widows in training and even offered to house the cadets’ children. But now, the hallways are empty. Despite this, Fatima Sadat, a 24-year-old major, keeps busy as the war rages on. “When the men are wounded on the battlefield, or killed, who will be the one to fill out the reports? Who will take care of informing the families? There are a lot of important things to deal with daily,” she says.

Women, like Sadat, often continue to face opposition from families and male colleagues in the armed forces, and many fear returning to their home provinces because of threats from insurgent groups. The 2004 Afghan Constitution incorporates the principle of gender equality before the law and allows women some hard-earned rights, such as the right to education and to employment. However, the constitution also declares Islam as a state religion, and conservative interpretations of Islamic law still predominantly guide Afghan culture and often conflict with women’s human rights standards across many areas. Outside the army barracks, almost all of the female cadets, including Sadat, keep their jobs a secret. Inside, many women find themselves denied promotions and thwarted in their search for meaningful assignment opportunities, training, and security.

The once bustling female dormitories offered a safe space for divorcées and widows in training and even offered to house the cadet’s children. But now, the hallways are empty.

SSadat was born in Iran and moved to Iraq with her family before coming to Afghanistan 11 years ago. “As a young girl I remember seeing police women, and thinking, they were strong and had personality… Now they call me commander,” she grins, proudly propping her boots up on the desk in front of her in her office in the women’s barracks. In the background, over the buzzing air conditioner, sporadic gunfire can be heard from a few male cadets practicing out on the range.

With the support of her father and brother, Sadat joined the forces at 17 as a second lieutenant in the Malalai unit, stationed near the border with Pakistan. “My dreams were a little bit different than other ladies and I wanted to be different from other ladies. I had dreams to become something, to serve my country, something that would benefit it — and I did that.”

Women had served in the forces for decades before the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, though in small numbers, without officer training and often facing great threats.

In 2014, NATO formally ended its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan, withdrawing an enormous deployment of international forces. The United States and its allies transitioned from combat operations to focus their attention on training, advising, and assisting the Afghan forces. Their goal: to carve out a reality in which Afghanistan is able to defend and secure its own country.

In 2010 NATO’s aim was for women to make up 10% of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) by 2020. They attempted to gain numbers through recruitment campaigns which included televised advertisements, headhunting, and incentive pay — but these approaches were met with little success. In late 2015, the government revised down its targets to focus on recruiting 5,000 women into the Afghan National Army alone by 2025.

As of April 2019, 4,984 women are serving across the Afghan Security Forces, representing roughly 1.6% of all soldiers.

In 2017 the U.S. military decided to keep the number of women in the Afghan forces classified information. Afghan records often do not match NATOs secret numbers and the Women’s Academy in Kabul displays yet a different reality.

The academy opened in 2014 with 23 recruits, and by the end of 2018 it housed 106 women, ages 18 to 26, all with big dreams of changing military culture. But a recent drop saw the number of female recruits sink to just 60.

AAmerican advisors once boasted of women in combat support units alongside male soldiers to help with culturally sensitive searches of homes. However, Sadat says that none have gone on to assist Afghan special forces with missions like night raids.

Though many female recruits hope to be deployed on the front line in combat support units, their initial and often eventual roles are office-based: administrative duties involving the management and running of military bases, equipment procurement and occasionally logistics, radio operations, or intelligence. There is often no clear path to promotion and, although trained and educated women can now get through the door, they find themselves forced into low-level, low-paid roles with few high-ranking women in the forces to turn to for direction and support.

According to SIGAR, In 2018 Resolute Support revised its goals again, aiming for 3% of the Afghan National Army to be filled by women by 2021.

Resolute Support went on to state that even the revised goal of 3% is “not truly actionable until improved force development and [authorized position] reassignment identifies and creates meaningful, operationally enhancing roles for women.” They advised the Afghan government to recode existing male-only positions to be gender-neutral and increase the number of female-only positions.

Although trained and educated women can now get through the door, they find themselves forced into low-level, low-paid roles with few high-ranking women in the forces to turn to for direction and support.

In the April quarterly report this year, according to SIGAR, the Resolute Support’s Gender Advisory Office admitted that the recruitment of new women to the defense forces is “generally on hold as each ministry works to realign or create positions that allow for female personnel to have career progression.” However, Resolute Support also stated that the Afghan National Army has resumed recruitment this last quarter, however noted that no new cadets have joined the Afghan National Police or the Afghan Special Security Forces.

Despite billions of dollars of international investment and significantly downscaled targets, the Afghan National Army still only fields 1,641 women.

Goals dropped, the Ministry of Defense’s current Manpower Management Plan no longer includes specific target numbers for female recruitment.

The declining numbers of military recruits are not the only problem for Afghan women. Incentive pay, with women making more than men, has led to resentment and harassment by male colleagues, endangering the very women it aims to support. Further, with the current situation intensifying around collapsed peace talks and elections, many women are leaving the military for security reasons.

Sadat says the Taliban often threatens female soldiers. “The Taliban say they will torture the girls and cut their noses or ears,” she notes. She has personally received death threats, “They sent a letter to my home and said you are working with the foreigners and you are trying to take the new generation of girls in other ways. They said wherever they see me, they will do whatever they can.”

On the Afghan government side, patriarchal attitudes also remain. “We are living in an Islamic society and men do not see that a woman is as strong as a man and she can do as much as a man can do,” says Sadat. “There are also illiterate men that are holding us back. They say, there is no room for women in the battlefield.”

For years, the United States provided funds to the Afghan Defense and Interior Ministries. Detractors claim that NATO pushes forward gender initiatives themselves or contracts directly or remotely with for-profit American companies with little coordination or interaction with Afghan counterparts. This top-down approach often fails to account for cultural differences, resulting in a lack of long-term support from Afghan counterparts

But the simple presence of women in the forces is not necessarily a catalyst for lasting social change. Afghan women’s rights advocates argue that more attention must be paid to community-led security reform — growing social values to have a determining role — and actively encourage communities to support women who seek out roles in the defense forces.

IInside the Marshal Fahim National Defense University, the women’s academy consists of classrooms, dormitories, and a gym. Photographs of “heroes,” including Rosa Parks and Colonel Latifa Nabizada — Afghanistan’s first female helicopter pilot — cover the hallway walls. The academy is named Zarghona, after one of the first women to fight in Afghanistan.

Women and men train separately but officers say the training is similar for both genders, covering everything from the military basics: drills, formations, medical care, and physical strength and endurance training. For many, this is the first physical exercise they have done in their lives. The men train with weapons but Sadat says weapons are locked and no longer supplied to female recruits. The women also take part in English classes. Unlike many Afghans, all the women who graduate from the academy are literate.

“The Americans trained us really well,” she says. “They encouraged us and they were strict with their rules so that we would be prepared. We wanted to have the Americans’ support for a long time but they had to leave. I really want to say thank you. They have done a lot for Afghan women in security forces.”

Despite their training, women aren’t sent to join men on the front line, a fact Sadat finds infuriating. “We have barracks full of women trained to fight, and if I get killed in a battle it is better than if I get killed in a blast here.”

However, she recognizes that the enemy is not the only potential danger to a female recruit, surrounded by male soldiers on a remote outpost. “We don’t have men we can trust. In the battlefield you have to spend the night, so how can we guarantee that while a girl is out fighting, she won’t be assaulted?” she says. “Even if the enemy is not going to kill me, our own men will do something to me.”

Women in the defense forces experience high levels of abuse and sexual assault by their male counterparts, often asked for sexual favors from male superiors in exchange for promotion or raises. Women seen as threats by their colleagues are often slandered with rumors of sexual impropriety.

In one prominent incident, a video anonymously posted to Facebook went viral in November of 2017, reportedly showing a female subordinate being pressured into sex by Colonel Laghmani of the Afghan Air Force after asking for a promotion. An Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman at the time said that the subsequent investigation “did not yield results.”

Little has been done by the Afghan government to provide protection for women in terms of substantive laws and policies, and there are no established sexual harassment and assault policies in place to protect women employed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior.

Resolute Support aimed to promote better policies in regards to sexual harassment and assault. However, progress has been disappointing. Despite a sexual harassment and assault prevention policy being drafted in late 2018 — and later signed by the minister of defense — the ministry has still not moved forward with implementing any of the new policy recommendations.

EEighteen years — and nearly a trillion dollars — into America’s longest war, the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan has struggled to reach or maintain many of its goals for the country’s security forces.

This year, peace talks with the Taliban signaled a potential further withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, leaving the fate of the country firmly in the hands of its national forces.

However, U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of a secretive Camp David summit to advance peace talks leaves the Afghan government and the Taliban in uncertain territory. Observers predict yet another impending surge in violence.

To date, 775,000 U.S troops have been deployed to Afghanistan. Critics argue that the United States has no place determining how the Afghan government should run its country. Others claim international attempts to integrate and support men and women across the security sector and push forward gender equality have been marred by repeated flawed execution and yielded limited results through gender programs and buffed up numbers of recruits designed to please Western donors for whom women’s rights in Afghanistan has become a business. Many agree that large amounts of money have been spent on programs that are often not well-suited to the unique context of Afghanistan.

Any progress made has been slow and the once palpable sense of excitement and pride among recruits who remain is now met with uncertainty. In spite of this situation, Sadat remains defiant. “I am a military person but I will say that even if the Americans leave our country, we have been fighting for our country before they were here and we will still be fighting for our country after they leave.”

The handful of remaining recruits at Marshal Fahim Camp remain in limbo, unable to do the job they signed up for, feeling unsafe in the forces, and playing a waiting game amid peace talks and a continued insurgency. These women continue to contend with societal pressures, discrimination, and family obligations — factors often forcing to them to return home.

Despite her impressive rise through the military ranks, Sadat, too, may leave the forces soon “Because of the security issues, I’ll probably be sitting at home. But I’m not happy about it, I want to make marshall.”

“It must be written that I have been a commander here,” says Sadat, adamant that she will not be forgotten. “I want my name to read, somewhere in America, that I am Commander Fatima Sadat of the officers academy.” She continues confidently, “No, Fatima Sadat, the first major.”

Protecting, enabling and empowering Afghan women has long been one of the primary ostensible goals of America’s war in Afghanistan. But far beyond “winning hearts and minds,” the small number of women who have made it into the military still find themselves largely at odds with the country’s cultural fabric and notions of women’s place in Afghan society. These women face an uphill battle and the outcome is far from certain.

For now, Sadat’s ambitions are tabled.


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