Afghan army trains women
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan army is training female special forces to take part in night raids against terrorists, breaking ground in an ultraconservative society and filling a vacuum left by departing international forces.
“If men can carry out this duty why not women?” asks Lena Abdali, a 23-year-old Afghan soldier who was one of the first women to join one of the special units in 2011.
Night raids have long been a divisive issue between Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who doesn't want foreign troops entering Afghan homes, and the U.S.-led coalition that says the raids are essential to capturing Taliban commanders.
Many Afghans, however, have complained that the house raids are culturally offensive. Having male troops search Afghan females is taboo. So is touching a family's Quran, the Muslim holy book, or entering a home without being invited. Another focus of anger has been the disregard for privacy and Afghan culture, because women and children are usually home during the raids.
The raids now are conducted jointly by U.S. and Afghan forces, but the female Afghan special forces soldiers play an important role. Their job: Round up women and children and get them to safety while guarding against the potential dangers of female suicide bombers or militants disguised in women's clothes.
The missions have taken on increasing importance, and the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition have stepped up training of the Afghan special forces as international troops prepare to end their combat mission in 23 months.
President Obama announced this week that he will withdraw about half of the 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan within a year. He did not spell out what U.S. military presence would remain after 2014.
Afghan women have been part of their nation's security forces for years, but they didn't start being recruited for the special forces until 2011. Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said more than 1,000 women were in the army — a small fraction of the total force of 195,000.
Col. Jalaluddin Yaftaly, the commander of the joint Special Unit of the Afghan National Army, said villagers don't like foreign forces to carry out operations in their homes, but they have welcomed the Afghan special forces units and cooperated with them in many operations.
“We were faced with so many problems when we didn't have female special forces in our units,” Yaftaly said. “Female special forces are quite useful.”
On a recent frigid winter morning, an Afghan special forces unit, comprising 30 men and women soldiers, drilled in Kabul.
As part of the exercise, the unit was told that an insurgent leader was hiding in a house and women and children were inside with him.
Abdali and two other female colleagues were tasked with making sure no women or children were harmed during the operation.
The most dangerous part of their assignment was the possibility that the main target was hiding among the women — perhaps in disguise — so Abdali and her colleagues had to stay alert to make sure they themselves were not attacked while getting innocents out of harm's way.