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Under cover of darkness, Afghan women head to battle

The Afghan Army is training women to join its special forces. They are playing a key role in night raids, essential in the pursuit of Taliban commanders. NBC's Mandy Clark reports.

By Mandy Clark, Correspondent, NBC News

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Severely outgunned, the battle was going badly. It seemed like certain defeat. Then, from out of the crowd stepped a young girl of around 14. She grabbed the pole from the fallen flag-bearer, held it up, and called out to her brothers-in-arms to fight to the death.

Though she was shot dead, her rallying cry was seen as the turning point of the 1880 Battle of Maiwand; a triumph for the Afghans, and a devastating loss for British forces during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Her name was Malalai, Afghanistan’s Joan of Arc. 

“If you go back into history, before we only had one female soldier named Malalai, but now I have a lot of Malalais in my Special Forces,” said Colonel Jalauddin Yaftaly, who heads the elite units. There are more than 1,000 women in the Afghan Army – and about two dozen have made it into Special Forces. 

In a country where equality is still a huge unresolved issue, on the battlefield women are making huge strides. 

Col. Yaftaly said he saw a need for women in the Special Forces to help conduct night raids. In 2011, he got permission to recruit women and has built up the female force to roughly 25, but says he needs more. Even their male colleagues say their work is essential. 

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Female members of Afghan special forces in training.

‘We do face death threats’
Night raids are considered the most dangerous: Commandos enter the homes of suspected insurgents under the cover of darkness.

The military says these missions are key in capturing Taliban commanders, but they are deeply controversial because it is considered culturally offensive for male troops to search female Afghans in their homes. Now, when possible, it’s women searching women. 

“Our duty is to go inside the houses, search the women and children, make them calm and get them out of danger,” said new 21-year-old recruit Zakia Halakim. 

Halakim was part of the Afghan police force when she was approached to try out for the Special Forces by Col. Yaftaly, who seeks the top women in the Afghan forces.

“My family supports me, they never told me not to do it,” she said. “They know it is important for Afghanistan.”  

On the firing range, Halakim is practicing with two female colleagues. Sporting dark sunglasses, a helmet and scarves wrapped round their faces, their identities are hidden. They have to be. Working alongside men has made them special targets. 

The women are paid the same as the men when they are on an operation. Right now, their role is limited to night raids. 

“We do face death threats because our work is outside of our culture but this is an important job,” said Halakim. 

Hoping for change
“As far as the culture in this country, no it’s not acceptable in this country at all,” said Mahbouba Seraj, an executive board member at the Afghan Women’s Network. “It goes against every single grain of belief of an Afghan man.” 

But Seraj believes these women might be able to change the way society thinks. 

“The most important thing is whether these women are going to do their jobs and really be effective ... are they really going to be saving lives of those women in the villages? If that is the outcome, then the whole view will change,” she said. 

In a training operation, the female Special Forces sweep the rooms for Afghan women. There could be hidden dangers, such as female suicide bombers. Their male colleagues say they are glad to have them. 

“We need our sisters as much as we need our brothers to join the army, police and Special Forces -- according to their interest -- and that will help us a lot,” said Agha Sharin Noori, an Afghan Special Forces soldier.

Brigadier General Mohammadzai Khatool is the only woman general in Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation, she was a paratrooper with over 600 jumps -- but when the Taliban took over she was forced to leave the military and stay at home.

In 2002, after the fall of the Taliban, she was promoted to general. She believes women are an essential part of the military.  

“Men and women are like two wings of the one bird. Working together, both are trying to defend their country and their people,” she said. 

Seraj agrees. “These women are amongst the bravest in Afghanistan," she said. "I appreciate the first steps that they are taking so much. I wish I could be alive and be around to see them become generals in this country.”


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