Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a sparsely decorated Kabul apartment, the young, bubbly woman told me why she lies to her neighbors.
She tells them she’s a nurse when they inquire, as they always do. She leaves the house in civilian clothes and changes into her crisp uniform only when she’s on base. This Afghan woman in her 20s, who asked that her name not be used for her safety, is part of a small, brave group of women serving in Afghanistan’s security forces. If her neighbors found out, she says, they’d surely kill her.
Sixteen years into a controversial United States-led war in Afghanistan — one billed in part as a mission to liberate Afghan women — the United States is pouring millions of dollars into bolstering the ranks of women in the police, the army and other branches of the security forces. Last fiscal year, the United States budgeted an additional $93.5 million to help increase recruitment of women and support them with suitable facilities, training and equipment.
It’s a worthy cause: Research shows that more women in security forces, generally speaking, means more stable societies. And in Afghanistan in particular — a country where women and girls are still routinely killed for “offenses” as minor as refusing a marriage proposal — the idea of supporting measures that expand gender equality seems like an easy call.
And yet as the young woman’s fears demonstrate, bolstering the ranks of women in security forces in a country like Afghanistan is not a simple numbers game. Through its hiring policies, the United States is trying to manufacture gender equality from the top down. In doing so, it is asking women to serve as the leading edge of change — a role that comes with great risks — often without providing adequate protection and support.
This month, Afghans expressed their disgust and fury on social media over a graphic video in which a woman in the Afghan Air Force is pressured into having sex with a colonel whom she had asked for a promotion. Women in the security forces routinely face requests for sex, female Air Force members told me last week. If they want to keep their positions, they can almost never turn them down — and this colonel, in particular, was known for his predatory behavior. In this case, however, the woman, remarkably, surreptitiously recorded her encounter and leaked the video herself — even though taking a stand against harassment can itself result in death threats.
In December, Niloofar Rahmani — Afghanistan’s first female fixed-wing pilot since the Taliban lost power — requested asylum at the end of her Air Force training in the United States. Ms. Rahmani gained notoriety in Afghanistan and abroad after striking photos circulated showing her on the job in a tan jumpsuit uniform and “Top Gun”-style aviators. Afterward, she says she began receiving threats — not just from extremists, but also from extended family and her colleagues within the security forces. The reaction at home to her asylum request has also been ugly: Afghan military officials have slammed Ms. Rahmani as a liar and a traitor, and urged Washington to reject her case.
But she is not alone. Numerous Afghan female military trainees who went through joint training in the United States have gone AWOL, according to the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. At least some have filed for asylum after they reported threats from the Taliban, other insurgents back home and from colleagues who resented them and spread rumors to ruin their reputations.
American efforts at recruitment have been marked by a 30,000-foot perspective that focuses on numbers, but lacks a sense of the realities for Afghan women on the ground: Many families are wary of allowing their daughters to enlist, acutely aware of cultural notions that women in security forces are “loose” because they work so closely alongside men. A false rumor is all it can take for a male colleague, or neighbor, to undermine a woman’s career — and even cost her her life.
It’s not that women don’t want to serve, says the American lawyer Kimberley Motley, who represents Ms. Rahmani. It’s that conditions make it untenable. “It’s a fallacy to say, ‘Well, the women don’t want to join,’ ” she said.
After working in Afghanistan for over nine years, Ms. Motley said, she knows “many, many women who want to fight for their country who are being denied access.” Male officers purposely fail female recruits, or refuse to promote women unless they agree to sex.
At times this missing perspective leads to more quotidian oversights, too. On a recent reporting trip to Afghanistan, I was shocked — and physically pained — to find that women’s bathrooms were few and far between at Afghan military bases, offices and police stations. (That’s despite $79.4 million in United States funds since 2014 earmarked for the construction of bathrooms and other facilities for female recruits.) In a deeply conservative country like Afghanistan, a safe place to use the toilet and change into a uniform can make the difference between a woman’s taking a job in the security forces or not.
Amid all this, it should come as no surprise that Western forces are coming up short in the numbers game, too. In 2010, Afghanistan, working closely with NATO, set out to have women make up at least 10 percent of the Afghan security forces by 2020. That isn’t even close to happening yet. (At the time, women made up roughly 0.2 percent of the Afghan National Army, and 0.9 percent of the police force.)
At the end of 2015, that goal was revised, extending the timeline and scrapping the percentage: 5,000 women in the army, and 10,000 women in the police force by 2025, according to a Department of Defense report to Congress.
At present, women make up only 1.4 percent of those serving in all of Afghanistan’s security forces — roughly 4,500 women. (In the future, the number of Afghan women serving will remain classified information because of a recent decision by the United States military to keep those numbers secret.)
The notion of liberating Afghanistan’s women has been a long-running theme of the Afghan war. “The fight against terrorism is also about the fight for the rights and dignity of women,” said Laura Bush, then the first lady, in a November 2001 White House radio address, one month after the United States invaded. Last August, President Trump reportedly made plans to increase the number of United States troops in Afghanistan by thousands after his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, showed him a picture of women wearing miniskirts in Kabul circa 1972.
But what if Afghan women don’t need rescuing? What if, instead, what they need is for the United States to pay more attention to supporting them while they are rebuilding their own country?
The United States owes it to these women — who risk their lives every day to defend Afghan and United States interests — to not just push for further gender equality, but to do so wisely. Someone in power should sit down with them, and ask: How can the United States better help you help Afghanistan?
Sophia Jones is a senior editor with the Fuller Project. Her reporting in Afghanistan was supported by the European Journalism Center.