It was five in the morning. A cluster of mud houses stood in silhouette against the moonlit sky, breaking the monotony of Helmand's desert topography. They were surrounded by farms that seemed to have produced little over the years. The icy, early-morning silence was interrupted by hushed chatter and hurried footsteps, which stopped at the door of a small, dark home.
Knocks in the dark are usually not welcome in this war-torn country, where they can be from Taliban insurgents seeking food and shelter or from Afghan soldiers in hot pursuit of them. But this knock on a frigid December morning was greeted with warm smiles and hot cups of green tea.
The visitor was Firoza, a 53-year-old grandmother and a police commander in Sistani, a village in the remote Marjah district of Helmand. Like many Afghans, she goes only by her first name.
She was here to settle a domestic dispute. Fida Noorzai, a local, had complained about her husband Fazal's violent outbursts, which had, of late, become frequent. Firoza ordered five of her heavily armed soldiers to quickly gather Noorzai's extended family in the courtyard. "I have to get this dispute out of the way before I get on to my routine duties," she bluntly told the soldiers.
Firoza's routine duty is to command the Afghan Local Police in the area. The ALP, a 30,000-strong organization that stands separate from the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police—two huge forces with a checkered history—was built up with the help of coalition brass in the waning years of the NATO mission and was trained by US Special Operations Forces. In recent years it has moved to the front lines of the fight against the Taliban, bringing local expertise and connections to bear, and its members have had many successes and suffered heavy casualties. Covered from head to toe in a traditional black cloak and donning an automatic assault rifle on her broad shoulders, Firoza has been defending the people of Sistani for the past three years. Affectionately called Ajani, meaning "the one who overcomes," Firoza was earlier under the command of her husband, 60-year-old Ewaz Mohammad Khan. But three years ago, the authorities in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah relieved Mohammad of his charge, citing lack of confidence in his leadership skills, and handed over the command to Firoza. Mohammad, who now reports to her along with 13 other soldiers, told me that Firoza quickly established herself as the leader of the unit. She is now the only female ALP commander in the country.
At the Noorzai compound, about a dozen people assembled in the small open space. In her steely voice, Firoza asked Noorzai to explain his irrational behavior. He gave an incoherent reply, which was summarily dismissed with the wave of a hand.
"Islam prohibits beating women," Firoza said as Noorzai nodded in agreement. "I expect you to be kind and compassionate to your wife." She then signaled one of her soldiers to hand over his thick leather belt. "If you defy me, you will have this printed all over you," she said, holding the belt high over her head for everyone to see.
In Sistani, no one defies Firoza. "Earlier, there were frequent complaints of soldiers extorting money and food from villagers," said Mohammad. "When such a complaint was brought to me, I would scold the guilty soldier. But Firoza took a different route. When she got the first such complaint, she called the guilty soldier, took his belt, and thrashed him with it in full public view. The message immediately got across, to the unit and to the people, that Firoza would not tolerate any transgression." He said she does not spare anyone. "I was once badly beaten by her. She hit me with a belt. I had to see a doctor," he said, deflecting questions about what he did to draw Firoza's ire. "In Sistani, there is no doubt over who is in command."
Three years ago, Sistani was overrun by Taliban, who imposed and collected taxes and dispensed their version of justice. The authority of the Afghan government was confined to the district headquarters and the provincial capital. There was only a limited presence of US and NATO forces, and the strength and morale of the Afghan forces were low.
This changed after Firoza took charge. She initiated several bold and unconventional measures to instill confidence among the people and her soldiers, one of which was her decision to arm her family. When the Afghan authorities ignored Firoza's repeated requests to give her more soldiers, she handed over weapons to 40 of her family members, including a 12-year-old grandson. This raised the strength of her forces in Sistani to 55 from 15. "In one stroke, we outnumbered the Taliban," Firoza said. "They got scared. They knew that Ajani was armed, her daughters were armed, her daughters-in-law were armed."
The Taliban then changed its local leadership and asked Mullah Habash, a key commander in the area, to take charge of the fight against Firoza in Sistani. Firoza said the three police posts under her control soon came under heavy fire from the Taliban. At half a dozen other places, her soldiers were ambushed. One of Firoza's sons was killed.
"The Taliban thought that the death of her son would crush Firoza's spirit. They did not know the stuff she was made of," said Hazrat Bedal Khan, the police chief in Marjah. Khan, who has known Firoza for more than ten years, told me that the killing of her son strengthened Firoza's resolve to drive the Taliban out of Sistani.
"From being largely a defensive force, the ALP unit under her command took on a more offensive role," Khan said. "Firoza and her men began to preempt Taliban attacks. Mullah Habash was injured, several Taliban fighters were killed, and many others were taken prisoners."
Khan said that to ensure her soldiers would not buckle under attack, Firoza would often stand behind them with her gun, telling them that she would not hesitate to shoot them if they turned and ran.
The clashes took an unexpected toll on Firoza and her family, however. Months after she took charge, two of Firoza's sons were arrested by Afghan soldiers following a clash not far from Sistani. Details are murky, but the authorities say the two were involved in a dispute with their brother-in-law and killed him in front of their sister at her home, a charge Firoza strongly denies.
"My sons were accused of killing civilians," Firoza told me, disputing the claims. "It's been nearly three years, but they have not been sentenced because the prosecutor's office has no evidence against them. I don't have the money or the connections to fight for them."
But Mohammad Anwar, the military prosecutor for Helmand, said his office has all the evidence to secure conviction of Firoza's sons. "They claim they only shot Taliban, but the reality is that Ajani's sons killed their sister's husband, who was a civilian," Anwar told me. "Ajani's daughter herself filed the complaint against her brothers. She said that her brothers would have also killed her son had she not protected him." According to Anwar, the case against Ajani's sons is now final. "A death sentence has been issued against one son, while the other will be sentenced soon," he said.
Meanwhile, back in Sistani, Firoza's soldiers had intercepted a Taliban radio message. "They are plotting another attack on me," she said. "This time it's going to be a car bomb."
If it's true that all politics is local, then in the fractured geographic and security landscape of Afghanistan all politics is hyperlocal. The ALP has seen successes in areas where the national army and police have struggled, in part because the ALP is made up of fighters like Firoza, who, beyond being a trailblazer for female commanders, has proven to be exactly the sort of leader who can really bring the fight to the Taliban: She is connected, respected, often feared, and fights as much for her village, her family, and her personal honor as she does to defend her country. This is the complicated reality of how the war in Afghanistan must be carried out today.
In the past three years, Firoza has survived nearly a dozen assassination attempts. The last one was only a week before my visit, when a Taliban insurgent planted a roadside bomb on the route her car was supposed to take. "Just like the Taliban, we too have informers. We have our people in their ranks. They tell us what the Taliban is up to," Firoza said, adding that "the Taliban has done all within its power to kill me. But I am not afraid of death. Even if I die, the battle will go on."
As an unfazed Firoza began to give instructions to her soldiers for the night patrol, Marjah's police chief, Khan, interjected. He asked Firoza's husband to double her security cover. Turning to Firoza, Khan said, "We want you alive—because when we look at you, we fight better."