The Rise and Fall of Afghanistan's Female Warlord
April 9, 2014
Tom A. Peter / Al Jazeera America
The only known female mujahedeen commander, Kaftar, was once the leader of a 600-strong armed force. Today she can't even leave the safe house where she is staying as a guest along with her granddaughter. After vanquishing the Russians and the Taliban, "Commander Dove" struggled to find a place in modern-day Afghanistan and now worries about her fate in a country plagued by war without end.
A Woman's War:
The Rise and Fall of Afghanistan's Female Warlord
Tom A. Peter / Al Jazeera America
(April 6, 2014) -- It was the late 1990s, at the height of the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Barren mountains loomed over the warring factions, overshadowing what little life existed on the rocky hillsides and making the afterlife that much more appealing to future martyrs. Commander Kaftar was leading a group of men opposed to the Taliban.
During this bitter standoff, a Talib commander new to the area tuned in to Kaftar's radio frequency from his hilltop bunker. He introduced himself to his enemy: "I am Mullah Baqi and I will fuck your wife."
Kaftar grabbed the radio and fired back, "My husband will fuck your wife."
Confused, Mullah Baqi thought he'd heard wrong. Commander Kaftar, whose nom de guerre translates to Commander Dove, clarified that she was, in fact, a woman. The Talib had unwittingly found himself squaring off against Afghanistan's only known female warlord.
In their next exchange, Kaftar warned him, "If you come after me and do your operations in my valley, people will laugh at you if you arrest a woman. If you come to my valley and I arrest you, then it will be bad for you." Not wanting to suffer the humiliation of fighting a woman, or worse yet, losing to one, Mullah Baqi swore he'd never attack Commander Kaftar.
About 15 years later, this rowdy, role-defying woman is seated cross-legged at the edge of a single bed in a hotel room in Kabul. Strands of her hair, dyed jet-black, spill out from her white headscarf.
The arthritic figure is a specter of the warrior who battled Soviet forces and the Taliban. She rarely smiles and says that she's only cried once since the start of the wars — when her grandchildren improperly tied her favorite horse to a tree and it slipped off a cliff and hanged itself.
Through the window of her hotel room, the contradictions of Kabul's posh Shar-e Naw neighborhood are on display. Gaudy, multistory concrete mansions with reflective windows, built to impress but not to handle the winter's cold or the summer's heat, dwarf a handful of the surviving mud-brick family homes and aging buildings.
Among foreigners, these mansions are known as "poppy palaces," a reference to the countless Afghans who flaunt riches acquired from trading the narcotic plant.
But Kaftar keeps the curtains drawn and has little interest in the world outside her window. In a life that has spanned 61 years in one of the most repressive countries for women, she rose to become a respected community leader and to lead hundreds of men into battle. But war and time have changed her country in ways that make it difficult to understand the purpose of her life's work.
Since 2001, a number of Afghan women have entered the political sphere. The Afghan constitution stipulates that women make up a fifth of those seated in parliament. Politicians such as Sharika Barkazai and Fawzia Koofi have managed to make a name for themselves. Activists such as Sima Simar have also thrived, taking advantage of foreign funding to undertake a number of women's projects.
"Now the days of force are gone," says Nadera Nahrinwal, a young, aspiring politician competing for a seat on Baghlan's provincial council in this month's elections and a close friend of Kaftar's. "Women can run for office. This is a kind of freedom."
Under NATO's guidance, the Afghan security forces have created positions for female recruits. The Soviet Union also enlisted Afghan women to serve in security forces loyal to the communist government.
Famously, Latifa Nabizada became a helicopter pilot and Khatool Mohammadzai joined the paratroopers in the Soviet-allied military. Today, Nabizada and Mohammadzai are still a part of the national military, which is now allied with American and NATO forces.
Most of these opportunities, however, reach only women who live in major cities.
What sets Commander Kaftar apart is not simply that she's an Afghan woman turned militia leader. It's that she achieved this independent of any outside influence, in rural Afghanistan, where women face the least possible amount of social mobility. And yet having established no clear precedent to help the next generation of women and without a skill set to remain relevant in today's Afghanistan, Commander Kaftar's life often seems most like a flash of lightning. An extraordinary moment in time to those who witnessed it, but ultimately lost as unharnessed energy.
2. The Education of a Female Warlord
Commander Kaftar started her life as Bibi Aisha Habibi, the daughter of Haji Dawlat, a prominent arbob, or community leader, in the village of Gawi in Baghlan province's Nahrin District in northern Afghanistan.
As a whole, the province has remained on the fringes of Afghan history. The majority of residents, past and present, make their living farming land that is overwhelmingly brown, an entire stretch of hills and valleys God created but forgot to water.
One of the middle children of 10, Kaftar remembers being her father's favorite. She followed him everywhere, even as he worked to settle disputes and advising villagers on everything from farming to family matters. In her earliest memories, Kaftar sat by her father's side in the local mosque where he conducted business in the winter.
People crowded into the low-ceilinged, mud-brick building and huddled around fire pits that billowed smoke into hanging chimneys while they awaited their turn to speak with Dawlat. In the summer, people met in his walled garden, where he invited guests to pick what they wanted from his fruit trees and drink from a small stream running through the property.
It was at these gatherings that Kaftar's life began to follow an unconventional path. Listening to her father solve disputes over who had access to a particular piece of farmland or advise people on what to do during a dry growing season, Kaftar learned how to lead a community. Her father used to send her to deliver playful insults to his friends, and Kaftar developed confidence and a reputation for attitude.
For most Afghan girls, this level of freedom would have ended at puberty, when girls join the closed-off women's section in a different orbit from the world of men and village business. But Kaftar's father continued bringing her to the gatherings, and as she got older he allowed her to take a more active role, even stepping in for him from time to time.
Kaftar got engaged at the age of 12, an occasion in which, again, most girls are removed from public life, but the family arranged for her to marry someone who was willing to accept that he was not marrying a regular housewife.
Promised to a man almost 10 years older, Kaftar wasn't worried about getting married as a preteen. "At the time it was normal to marry at that age," she says. "Everyone thought it was good for people to marry young." Instead she wondered whether she'd get along with her in-laws.
After the engagement had been arranged, her fiancé came to her family home for a celebration. Kaftar stood at the center of a group of women on the home's veranda, overlooking the family garden, dressed in a green bakhmal, a gown worn over loose-fitting pants, waiting to glimpse the man with whom she'd spend the rest of her life.
Finally, a tall Panjishiri man strode into the garden wearing a crisp, white salwar khamees. The two locked eyes before he disappeared into a men's sitting room.
"Imagine that an alien enters your house. How do you feel? You never saw him in the past, you never talked to him in the past, just suddenly a random guy, an alien face enters as your future husband. At that moment I felt like Angel Azrael [the archangel of death] came and took my breath away," recalls Kaftar.
Three months later the two were able to talk for the first time. Her mother helped arrange a secret meeting, a common Afghan practice. In the pervasive darkness of night in the countryside, they met behind her family home and spoke for about 10 minutes.
A half century later, Kaftar can't remember what they talked about, but she says it did little to make him feel like less of a stranger. After three years of passing word-of-mouth messages through friends and family, the two formally married.
In Kaftar's recounting of her life, her husband may as well be an uncredited extra, whose only notable virtue was that he accepted her role as a community leader. In the wars that would come he stayed at home with their seven children while his wife went into battle. Several years ago he fell ill. By the time he managed to get medical treatment it was too late, and he died shortly thereafter.
Her marriage settled, Kaftar continued her unofficial apprenticeship. Increasingly, Kaftar rode to nearby villages, acting as a roving arbob on her father's behalf. She took satisfaction in resolving marriage disputes and forcing families to allow women to choose whom they wanted to marry. She also implemented rules to reduce dowries, removing a barrier that blocked many couples from marrying.
Mohammed Zaher Ghanizada grew up a short distance from Kaftar and became friends with her family. He recalls a story about Kaftar as a teenage girl crossing a small stream. A man sat on the shore watching her and shouted lewd, suggestive remarks at her.
Once she'd crossed over to his side, she responded by pummeling the man. As Ghanizada tells the story, before leaving the catcaller to lick his wounds, Kaftar said, "You wanted to lay me down on the ground, and now I've laid you on the ground."
Years later, when her father was on his deathbed, he told Kaftar, "I wish one of my sons was like you, this intelligent and brave and hardworking."
"I feel that I am your son, not your daughter. I can do the same job as your son," she replied.
1. Commander Dove
2. The education of a female warlord
3. A village at war
4. A new enemy
5. Family feud
6. The warrior in a time of peace
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