Javier Manzano

A woman’s war: The rise and fall of Afghanistan’s female warlord

After vanquishing the Russians and the Taliban, Commander Kaftar struggled to find a place in modern-day Afghanistan and now worries about her fate in a country plagued by war without end

Topics:
International
Afghanistan
War

It was the late 1990s, at the height of the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Barren mountains loomed over the warring factions, overshadowing what little life existed on the rocky hillsides and making the afterlife that much more appealing to future martyrs. Commander Kaftar was leading a group of men opposed to the Taliban. During this bitter standoff, a Talib commander new to the area tuned in to Kaftar’s radio frequency from his hilltop bunker. He introduced himself to his enemy: “I am Mullah Baqi and I will fuck your wife.”

Kaftar grabbed the radio and fired back, “My husband will fuck your wife.”

Confused, Mullah Baqi thought he’d heard wrong. Commander Kaftar, whose nom de guerre translates to Commander Dove, clarified that she was in fact a woman. The Talib had unwittingly found himself squaring off against Afghanistan’s only known female warlord. 

In their next exchange, Kaftar warned him, “If you come after me and do your operations in my valley, people will laugh at you if you arrest a woman. If you come to my valley and I arrest you, then it will be bad for you.” Not wanting to suffer the humiliation of fighting a woman, or worse yet, losing to one, Mullah Baqi swore he’d never attack Commander Kaftar. 

Commander Kaftaer
The only known female mujahedeen commander, Kaftar, was once the leader of a 600-strong armed force. Today she can't even leave the safe house where she is staying as a guest along with her granddaughter.
Javier Manzano

About 15 years later, this rowdy, role-defying woman is seated cross-legged at the edge of a single bed in a hotel room in Kabul.  Strands of her hair, dyed jet-black, spill out from her white headscarf. The arthritic figure is a specter of the warrior who battled Soviet forces and the Taliban. She rarely smiles and says that she’s only cried once since the start of the wars — when her grandchildren improperly tied her favorite horse to a tree and it slipped off a cliff and hanged itself.

Through the window of her hotel room, the contradictions of Kabul’s posh Shar-e Naw neighborhood are on display. Gaudy, multistory concrete mansions with reflective windows, built to impress but not to handle the winter’s cold or the summer’s heat, dwarf a handful of the surviving mud-brick family homes and aging buildings. Among foreigners, these mansions are known as “poppy palaces,” a reference to the countless Afghans who flaunt riches acquired from trading the narcotic plant.

But Kaftar keeps the curtains drawn and has little interest in the world outside her window. In a life that has spanned 61 years in one of the most repressive countries for women, she rose to become a respected community leader and to lead hundreds of men into battle. But war and time have changed her country in ways that make it difficult to understand the purpose of her life’s work.

Since 2001, a number of Afghan women have entered the political sphere. The Afghan constitution stipulates that women make up a fifth of those seated in parliament. Politicians such as Sharika Barkazai and Fawzia Koofi have managed to make a name for themselves. Activists such as Sima Simar have also thrived, taking advantage of foreign funding to undertake a number of women’s projects.

“Now the days of force are gone,” says Nadera Nahrinwal, a young, aspiring politician competing for a seat on Baghlan’s provincial council in this month’s elections and a close friend of Kaftar’s. “Women can run for office. This is a kind of freedom.”

Under NATO’s guidance, the Afghan security forces have created positions for female recruits. The Soviet Union also enlisted Afghan women to serve in security forces loyal to the communist government. Famously, Latifa Nabizada became a helicopter pilot and Khatool Mohammadzai joined the paratroopers in the Soviet-allied military. Today, Nabizada and Mohammadzai are still a part of the national military, which is now allied with American and NATO forces.

Most of these opportunities, however, reach only women who live in major cities.

What sets Commander Kaftar apart is not simply that she’s an Afghan woman turned militia leader. It’s that she achieved this independent of any outside influence, in rural Afghanistan, where women face the least possible amount of social mobility.  And yet having established no clear precedent to help the next generation of women and without a skill set to remain relevant in today’s Afghanistan, Commander Kaftar’s life often seems most like a flash of lightning. An extraordinary moment in time to those who witnessed it, but ultimately lost as unharnessed energy.

Commander Kaftar started her life as Bibi Aisha Habibi, the daughter of Haji Dawlat, a prominent arbob, or community leader, in the village of Gawi in Baghlan province’s Nahrin District in northern Afghanistan. As a whole, the province has remained on the fringes of Afghan history. The majority of residents, past and present, make their living farming land that is overwhelmingly brown, an entire stretch of hills and valleys God created but forgot to water.

One of the middle children of 10, Kaftar remembers being her father’s favorite. She followed him everywhere, even as he worked to settle disputes and advising villagers on everything from farming to family matters. In her earliest memories, Kaftar sat by her father’s side in the local mosque where he conducted business in the winter. People crowded into the low-ceilinged, mud-brick building and huddled around fire pits that billowed smoke into hanging chimneys while they awaited their turn to speak with Dawlat. In the summer, people met in his walled garden, where he invited guests to pick what they wanted from his fruit trees and drink from a small stream running through the property.

It was at these gatherings that Kaftar’s life began to follow an unconventional path. Listening to her father solve disputes over who had access to a particular piece of farmland or advise people on what to do during a dry growing season, Kaftar learned how to lead a community. Her father used to send her to deliver playful insults to his friends, and Kaftar developed confidence and a reputation for attitude.

For most Afghan girls, this level of freedom would have ended at puberty, when girls join the closed-off women’s section in a different orbit from the world of men and village business. But Kaftar’s father continued bringing her to the gatherings, and as she got older he allowed her to take a more active role, even stepping in for him from time to time. 

Women in a co-op knit dresses at a mosque in the Yakawlang District of Bamyan province. For most women in rural Afghanistan, working in such a co-op is the only option they have for working outside of the house.
Javier Manzano

Kaftar got engaged at the age of 12, an occasion in which, again, most girls are removed from public life, but the family arranged for her to marry someone who was willing to accept that he was not marrying a regular housewife.

Promised to a man almost 10 years older, Kaftar wasn’t worried about getting married as a preteen. “At the time it was normal to marry at that age,” she says. “Everyone thought it was good for people to marry young.” Instead she wondered whether she’d get along with her in-laws.

After the engagement had been arranged, her fiancé came to her family home for a celebration. Kaftar stood at the center of a group of women on the home’s veranda, overlooking the family garden, dressed in a green bakhmal, a gown worn over loose-fitting pants, waiting to glimpse the man with whom she’d spend the rest of her life. Finally a tall Panjishiri man strode into the garden wearing a crisp, white salwar khamees. The two locked eyes before he disappeared into a men’s sitting room.

“Imagine that an alien enters your house. How do you feel? You never saw him in the past, you never talked to him in the past, just suddenly a random guy, an alien face enters as your future husband. At that moment I felt like Angel Azrael [the archangel of death] came and took my breath away,” recalls Kaftar.

Three months later the two were able to talk for the first time. Her mother helped arrange a secret meeting, a common Afghan practice. In the pervasive darkness of night in the countryside, they met behind her family home and spoke for about 10 minutes. A half century later, Kaftar can’t remember what they talked about, but she says it did little to make him feel like less of a stranger. After three years of passing word-of-mouth messages through friends and family, the two formally married.

In Kaftar’s recounting of her life, her husband may as well be an uncredited extra, whose only notable virtue was that he accepted her role as a community leader. In the wars that would come he stayed at home with their seven children while his wife went into battle. Several years ago he fell ill. By the time he managed to get medical treatment it was too late, and he died shortly thereafter.

Her marriage settled, Kaftar continued her unofficial apprenticeship. Increasingly, Kaftar rode to nearby villages, acting as a roving arbob on her father’s behalf. She took satisfaction in resolving marriage disputes and forcing families to allow women to choose whom they wanted to marry.  She also implemented rules to reduce dowries, removing a barrier that blocked many couples from marrying.

Mohammed Zaher Ghanizada grew up a short distance from Kaftar and became friends with her family. He recalls a story about Kaftar as a teenage girl crossing a small stream. A man sat on the shore watching her and shouted lewd, suggestive remarks at her. Once she’d crossed over to his side, she responded by pummeling the man. As Ghanizada tells the story, before leaving the catcaller to lick his wounds, Kaftar said, “You wanted to lay me down on the ground, and now I’ve laid you on the ground.”

Years later, when her father was on his deathbed, he told Kaftar, “I wish one of my sons was like you, this intelligent and brave and hardworking.”

“I feel that I am your son, not your daughter. I can do the same job as your son,” she replied.

On Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in support of the pro-Soviet government, which had begun facing serious opposition. In Kaftar’s slice of rural Baghlan, the particulars motivating the invasion mattered little. Word spread that foreign forces had entered the country and their soldiers were slaughtering Afghans.

Soviet forces had pushed close to Kaftar’s village, but it remained unclear if they would go any further. Still, the villagers piled stones to make basic fighting positions near key entry points. Lookouts watched for Soviet troops. Those who had hunting rifles cleaned their weapons.

The morning stillness of the countryside around Kaftar’s village normally erodes like a piece of sandstone dropped in water, crumbling away as humans and livestock rise and return to work. But two days after the preparations began, the sun had just crested over Baghlan’s haphazard hillside when gunshots cracked on the mountain, instantly bringing the village to life.

Kaftar slung a bolt-action rifle on her back, the shoulder strap lined with bullets, Pancho Villa–style, and ran toward the gunfire. She joined other villagers, some armed with rifles like hers, others carrying swords and shovels or whatever makeshift weapon they could find.

Until that moment, almost every villager had spent their entire life farming. Kaftar knew how to use a gun, but admits she was a lousy shot. As an acknowledged leader in the village, she started to become the one that people looked to for direction. The only order she knew to give was to attack.

“If you get killed, you’ll be martyred, and if you kill them, you will be a hero,” she shouted to the growing crowd.

Armed with assault rifles and light machine guns, the Russians had the villagers outgunned, but the locals easily outnumbered the Soviets. By sunset, the mob had chased the Russians back to their strongpoint, where Soviet tanks forced the Afghans’ retreat. The small victory came at a cost, leaving dozens dead, including three of Kaftar’s relatives.

“It was like Judgment Day. It was the first time in my life I’d seen that many dead bodies. Everyone from the area gathered and came to see the dead bodies laying on the ground. It was really hard for us to see,” she recalls.

It was the bloodiest single day of the Soviet war for Kaftar’s small village, and the beginning of a violent spell that continues 34 years later.  

(From left to right) Nadera Nahrinwal, an aspiring local politician and friend of Kaftar, and Bibi Zora, Commander Kaftar's granddaughter, watch as she clears a round from her Soviet-made Makarov pistol. On the right, Kaftar's bodyguard also looks on.
Javier Manzano

For most of the nine and half years of the Soviet war, Kaftar’s area was not a major front. Her village reinforced its bunkers and organized a 200- to 300-man militia allied with Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the most well-known Afghan fighters.

“It was her own bravery that led her to fight against the Soviet Union,” says Haji Abdul Wahab Abid, who fought alongside the mujahedeen in Baghlan during the Russian invasion. “Whenever you saw her riding her horse, she was always wearing a camouflage jacket. If you saw her from far away, you were not able to understand that this was a woman.”

Kaftar learned to shoot straight and trained her prized horse, a chestnut mare named Maidan, to stand still while she fired a machine gun over its head. In combat, Kaftar swears by mares. “If you have a male horse it doesn’t help. If you’re moving somewhere and something happens, male horses make noise and they give away your position, but if anything happens with a mare, they just keep walking. They are like educated horses,” she says.

Eventually the war had been going on long enough that Kaftar felt more confident taking her youngest daughter with her to ambush Russian troops than leaving her at home, where she fussed and cried without her mother.

On the nights when Kaftar led her men to attack Soviet positions, she slung the supplies she would need on Maidan. Then she climbed on with her weapon of choice — a Soviet-made RKP light machine gun with a 100-round drum of ammunition — and placed her toddler daughter astride Maidan’s withers.

Most nights her daughter fell into an imperturbable slumber during the ride and wouldn’t notice when her mother dropped her off at a friend or family member’s house along the way. On other nights, Kaftar placed her daughter in an area removed enough from the ambush that a combatant would call it safe if and when the fighting began.

Her daughter served the added function of helping Kaftar hide in plain sight, making the seasoned fighter look just like an innocent mother. On one occasion, Soviet troops stopped Kaftar at a checkpoint. She had spent the last several days laying low after a botched attack on another checkpoint and was trying to make her way home.

A Russian soldier peered into her car and Kaftar’s daughter began to cry. The Russian smiled softly, reassuring Kaftar and her daughter that there was no need to be afraid. He stroked the child’s back for a moment, stepped away from the car and waved Kaftar through.

Asked if a personal moment like that with a Russian soldier made her enemy seem more human and harder to kill, Kaftar looks puzzled and finally grins as if amused by an inside joke. 

“You are asking a strange question about killing each other and then feeling some good about humans,” she says. “When the fighting started and the attacks started, you didn’t care about anything. When they kill your family, you forget about everything and you are thinking about revenge. Three of my nephews got killed because of me, because of my orders, because they were in the Taliban and I was a mujahedeen [who opposed the Taliban]. When clashes and enmity start, then you don’t care about feelings.”

Facing an unpopular and seemingly unwinnable war, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in Feb. 15, 1989. Kaftar and the villagers celebrated what they thought was the return of peace. But almost immediately after Russian Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov stepped onto the Friendship Bridge, crossed over the Amu Darya River, and became the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan, civil war erupted. No longer united by a common enemy, mujahedeen factions began turning their guns against one another, vying for control of the country.

“Very soon we realized that it was the same donkey with a different harness,” says Kaftar. “It was the same thing happening, the same fighting and killing and bloodshed.”

By 1996, the Taliban had emerged as the dominant force in Afghanistan, capturing Kabul and, eventually, 90 percent of the country. Commander Kaftar’s piece of Baghlan was among a handful of areas that remained beyond their reach, making it a principal front.

“We never ate a single lunch from beginning to end like normal,” says Kaftar of life during the war against the Taliban. “Sometimes we would be starting lunch and the fighting would start and we would have to shoot back at them. In the morning, you’d have two sips of tea and then the fighting would start.”

Commander Kaftar
Kaftar surrendered her weapons as part of the UN Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups program (DIAG). However, she kept some small arms for herself and her personal guards. One of these weapons is her Russian-made Makarov pistol, which she always carries in a holster under her shoulder.
Javier Manzano

By the time she was battling the Taliban, Kaftar had established herself as an intimidating leader. Abid, who now serves as a colonel in the Afghan police, was aware that she had fought during the Soviet war, but remembers nothing exceptional about her until the war with the Taliban started. He says Commander Kaftar managed to stop two attempted Taliban incursions into her village, pushing her to the forefront of the resistance in the area.

“It was not normal for me to hear about a woman defeating the Taliban,” he recalls. 

By the final years of the war against the Taliban, frequent assassination attempts had forced Kaftar to stop sleeping in her house. Decades of fighting had made her numb to war and its sorrows. When two of her sons fell on the battlefield, she says, she never cried. She didn’t know it at the time, but her own family members were among those trying to kill her. In the final days of the war, her men captured 50 Talibs who’d made a failed assault against her position.

Kaftar’s fighters began the process of taking prisoners, confiscating their weapons, handcuffing them and chaining them together for transport to a prison facility. Whatever elation she may have felt having survived another attempt on her life and capturing scores of enemies vanished when one of her subordinates told her that they’d just discovered two of her nephews and her cousin once removed among the prisoners.

It was a plain fact that members of Kaftar’s family had joined with the Taliban, but she never dreamed they would be among those working to kill her directly.

She approached her shackled family members and said, “You are a Taliban and I am in the Northern Alliance. I didn’t attack you a single time. Why did you come and attack us?”

The men responded with silence and empty stares. “It’s really painful when your own family members come to kill you, and then later it’s painful when you kill them,” she says.

Several days later, she received a report that the three men were gunned down en route to prison. They’d allegedly brokered a deal with one of the guards to escape, but were killed as they fled.

After the 9/11 attacks, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, swiftly routing the Taliban, Kaftar thought peace might once again return to her country. There was still fighting, but it was focused in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan. International forces now patrolled the country and were building up the Afghan security forces, and decentralized militia groups like Kaftar’s were seen as a source of instability. By 2006, the situation seemed stable enough that Kaftar agreed to surrender the majority of her and her fighters’ weapons as part of a United Nations–sponsored program to disarm unofficial militia groups.

But as many people who pick up arms discover, putting them down often proves more difficult. Shortly after Kaftar agreed to disarm, the Taliban made a sharp resurgence. Now she regularly receives calls from people threatening to murder her with a suicide bomb attack. 

Kaftar Afghanistan family feud
Commander Kaftar holds a photo of the body of one of the men loyal to her who she says was killed by men connected to the Taliban.
Javier Manzano

Kaftar also became embroiled in a family feud when her grandson allegedly killed her nephew. The details of the incident are disputed, but the most commonly held narrative says that her grandson and other family members invited the nephew over for dinner. At some point during the evening, he was shot and killed. Some contend it was an accident; others say Kaftar’s grandson executed her nephew during an argument over a woman.

The feud led to tit-for-tat violence that killed a total of 12 people and wounded seven from both sides of the family. A local commission stepped in to resolve the issue early last year, but at substantial cost to Kaftar. She paid her nephew’s family more than $20,000 to settle the issue. 

Sadrudin Ahmadi, the son of her nephew’s family’s patriarch, alleges that Kaftar had numerous affairs and picked up a gun in an effort to keep the illicit liaisons secret. He also accuses her militia of extorting people for money and bribes.

“She is not a respected woman,” he says. Ahmadi contends that Kaftar’s family has yet to pay him any of the money from the settlement, but adds that his family is unlikely to take any additional actions unless provoked. (Mullavi Faiz Mohammed Haqqani, a member of the commission that made the decision to settle the dispute, says he was present when Kaftar paid her rival family in full.)

Afghan family feuds are notoriously complicated, and Kaftar’s is no exception. Hawas Khan Fitrat, who travels as part of Kaftar’s entourage, is also the son-in-law of Mullavi Gul Ahmad, the head of her rival family. Even at the peak of the feud, he regularly visited both families.

“When the new generation gets educated and goes to school they will definitely forget about the culture of guns and rivalries,” says Fitrat, who graduated from a local college with a degree in Islamic law. “There is no benefit in a feud. You lose your life, you lose your family’s life, you face hunger, and your kids face the same thing.”

At her hotel in Kabul, Kaftar sleeps at the foot of two single beds on a thin carpet spread over a stone floor, with a well-traveled duffle bag as a pillow. After years of living in the hills, she says she prefers the floor.

Like most people in Afghanistan, she’s waiting to hear whether the U.S. will completely withdraw from the country at the end of this year. If it pulls out, she fears a return of Taliban rule, and this time she won’t be strong enough to resist. Without help or enough weapons, she worries that the hard-line militants will come after her and her family.

Kaftar would like to apply for asylum somewhere outside Afghanistan, but does not know how. She also says any nation willing to provide a safe haven would need to offer passage to 30 or 40 of her family members as well. She could flee to neighboring Pakistan or Iran, but she’s concerned that neither country would be safer than Afghanistan.

“I was proud of my career,” she says. “But since I have been getting threats and I'm struggling and suffering, now I think I should not have become a commander. I wish I would have been just a normal housewife. That no one would know me, no one would come to talk to me, and I would have been just a normal housewife. Now I am sitting awake at night, always on guard, with a gun, ready to protect myself.”