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.