The Secret Lives of Afghanistan’s Women Soldiers

Around 5,000 women served in Afghanistan’s military, police and security forces. Many of them are still in hiding, fearful of retribution from the Taliban.
The Secret Lives of Afghanistan’s Women Soldiers
Photo: 

HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images / File 

The collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the establishment of a new Western-backed government paved the way for the inclusion of women in the country’s new armed forces.

While they faced huge challenges and stigma, by the time the Taliban re-took Afghanistan this summer, there were around 5,000 women working across three security agencies: the Ministry of Defence and the army, the Ministry of Interior and the police, and the National Directory of Security or Afghanistan’s secret police.

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They worked in a variety of positions, from commandos and pilots to domestic violence prevention units. Some of these women left Afghanistan once the Taliban returned, but many did not, and despite the announcement of a general amnesty they are deeply concerned for their safety and that of their families.

VICE World News has spoken to an Afghan National Army veteran in her early twenties who has been in hiding since she received threats from the Taliban.

The woman joined the army in 2019 and moved up the ranks to become an officer before working with special police units.

She said she worked for years in “various areas such as reconnaissance, investigation and fighting the Taliban; I participated in many special operations.”

“Before the Taliban came to power, I was very happy to work in the security forces and provide for my family,” the former officer told VICE World News via WhatsApp. “I wished I could make a lot of progress in the military and reach the leadership level, but now all my dreams have been destroyed."

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The woman was on duty the day the Taliban entered Kabul and everything changed in an instant.

“It was Sunday, I was with my colleagues in the special police forces department building. Unfortunately, I was sick that day and I went to the doctor we had in our centre. All of a sudden, we were radioed to reach [headquarters]. After that, we were ordered to pack up and return to our homes. I took off my military uniform and left in informal clothes. On the way, I saw everyone on all sides in a hurry. I saw the Taliban patrolling on top of [Humvees]. The situation was very bad. My family called me multiple times telling me to be careful. All of my colleagues who were in the same car as me were terrified since everything happened very quickly and our dark days began.”

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Like tens of thousands of others, the woman tried to leave via Kabul’s airport, but the situation was complicated by the Taliban controlling the route to the airport.

“My friends called me to go to the airport and hopefully from there I could get to another country. I got permission from my family and left, but it was very difficult to go through Taliban checkpoints, I was really scared because I fought against them for years, I was involved in several operations, I was afraid that one of them might notice my face or they would kill me if they figured out who I was. We got close to the airport, everyone was trying to enter, but once I saw the Taliban firing on civilians and injuring several people, I could not stay there, so I went back home. I tried twice but my efforts were unsuccessful.”

The former officer, like other women in the army and police, is deeply sceptical of the Taliban’s claims that they will not seek retribution against those associated with the deposed Western-backed governments or their armed forces.

“The Taliban found my contact number and called me several times to warn me that they would find me. The database of all security forces working with the previous government is now with the Taliban. After receiving that call, I left my house immediately and currently I live in an undisclosed location, but with a life as a prisoner. I cannot go out and I cannot even take a breath of peace. The Taliban is a savage group and they haven’t changed from 20 years ago. There is no amnesty. The Taliban are lying. I wanted to get a passport but my colleagues said I should not go because I will be identified and I might be killed like a number of my colleagues have been. I unfortunately lost several colleagues who were killed by the Taliban. The amnesty is just words, in practice the Taliban are not implementing it."

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These are dark days for the former army officer, who has seen her father die and brother arrested since the Taliban returned.

Women Afghan National Army soldiers march during a training exercise in Kabul in 2014. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Women Afghan National Army soldiers march during a training exercise in Kabul in 2014. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

"On the 18th of August, the Taliban arrested my brother near our house on charges of collaborating with the National Resistance Front, and for several days our family did not know where he was being held. I myself could not leave the house. My mother and father tried a lot to find my brother. My brother was with the Taliban for two months, and my father was very worried until he died of a heart attack on the 11th of October, which was the worst day of my life. He died while I was in hiding and my brother was locked away, nobody was even there to help bury my father.”

Many of the military officers who worked in the former Afghan government have been the sole breadwinners of their families, and now that they can no longer work, they face economic as well as security problems.

The international community has been a major supporter of women working in Afghanistan's security sector. In the last 20 years, about $100 million (around £75 million) has been invested by the international community to train female armed officers in Afghanistan.

Women who served as officers in the Afghan military and are still in Afghanistan are calling on human rights organisations, the international community and NATO to help  them and  evacuate them from Afghanistan as soon as possible.

A small number of these women have been able to flee Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power, but most have been trapped inside the country. There are no accurate statistics on women military personnel who have been arrested, disappeared or killed since the Taliban took office in Afghanistan.