Breach­ing Afghan bar­ri­ers

An all-fe­male class fin­ishes an army of­fi­cer-can­di­date pro­gram

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Laura King re­port­ing from KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

One by one, each smartly uni­formed mem­ber of the class stood at full at­ten­tion, bran­dished a grad­u­a­tion cer­tifi­cate and ut­tered the rit­ual call-out: “I will serve Afghanistan!”

But for the first time, the proud group of newly com­mis­sioned army of­fi­cers was made up en­tirely of women. The 29 sec­ond lieu­tenants were the first fe­male re­cruits to com­plete a 20-week of­fi­cer-can­di­date pro­gram men­tored by U.S. troops.

Their grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony this week at a sprawl­ing train­ing fa­cil­ity on Kabul’s east­ern out­skirts marked a mile­stone for Afghan se­cu­rity forces and spoke vol­umes about the com­plex in­ter­play here of gen­der roles and se­cu­rity de­mands.

The drive to bring Afghan se­cu­rity forces up to a rea­son­able fight­ing stan­dard has taken on added ur­gency; their role is con­sid­ered cen­tral to the U.S. exit strat­egy. Western of­fi­cials hope that in three years, Afghan sol­diers and po­lice of­fi­cers will as­sume the lead role in safe­guard­ing the coun­try.

For that, women are badly needed, not only for cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive tasks such as en­ter­ing homes and deal­ing di­rectly with the women present, or car­ry­ing out body searches on other women. They also are ex­pected to fill out the ranks as the armed forces em­bark on a con­certed ex­pan­sion.

But in a so­ci­ety where re-


li­gious, so­cial and tribal ta­boos color ev­ery as­pect of daily life, women in uni­form — in this case, dark-green belted jack­ets and trousers, with black head scarves be­neath wide-billed caps trimmed with gold braid — re­main an anom­aly.

Women ac­count for a tiny frac­tion of both the po­lice and army, even af­ter al­most a decade of in­ten­sive nur­tur­ing by U.S. and other for­eign forces. Only a few hun­dred women serve in the army. But the goal is that women even­tu­ally will make up 10% of a force that is slated to grow to nearly 300,000.

Many of the women who have joined the se­cu­rity forces, par­tic­u­larly those from ru­ral ar­eas, face in­tense op­po­si­tion from fam­ily, com­mu­nity el­ders and some­times from the men they serve along­side.

These new grad­u­ates are well-ed­u­cated for an army in which as many as 70% of the re­cruits are il­lit­er­ate. All of them have fin­ished high school and a few hold col­lege de­grees. They will not be de­ployed in bat­tle, where Afghan po­lice of­fi­cers and sol­diers suf­fer high ca­su­alty rates in the fight against the Tal­iban and other in­sur­gents. In­stead, they will take ad­min­is­tra­tive jobs in lo­gis­tics and fi­nance.

But as in most war zones, mil­i­tary sup­port per­son­nel can also find them­selves in harm’s way. And even be­hind the lines, there is no hid­ing from Afghanistan’s male-dom­i­nated cul­ture.

It re­mains to be seen whether the Afghan army’s ded­i­ca­tion to gen­der in­clu­sive­ness will sur­vive the de­par­ture of Western mil­i­tary train­ers, in whose home coun­tries it is a given that greater op­por­tu­ni­ties for women strengthen so­ci­ety as a whole. It is un­clear whether pay for fe­male of­fi­cers will match that of male of­fi­cers of equal rank.

Af­ter weeks of train­ing and con­fi­dence-build­ing ex­er­cises, one of the new grad­u­ates blushed to the roots of her hair when asked what she would do if a male sol­dier chal­lenged her author­ity.

Women made ear­lier in­roads in the Afghan na­tional po­lice, but are of­ten rel­e­gated to some­what me­nial jobs.

One of the new of­fi­cers in Thurs­day’s grad­u­at­ing class con­fided that with men in vir­tu­ally all su­per­vi­sory roles in the army, it was an open se­cret that good looks would play a big part in the as­sign­ment they would re­ceive. But the same young of­fi­cer also said that as she rose through the ranks, as she ex­pected to do, she would try to help other women along.

For the pi­o­neer­ing fe­male of­fi­cer can­di­dates, the phys­i­cal train­ing was a huge hur­dle. Lit­er­ally.

In all but a few big cities, it’s un­usual for Afghan women to un­der­take any kind of ex­er­cise reg­i­men, aside from the back­break­ing phys­i­cal la­bor per­formed by vil­lage women. There are a few women-only gyms, but it would be un­heard of, for ex­am­ple, for an Afghan woman to jog on an ur­ban street.

“Most of them could barely do a push-up with their knees bent when they started out,” said U.S. Army Capt. Ja­nis Lullen, a re­servist with the Ok­la­homa Ci­ty­based 95th Train­ing Di­vi­sion. Now, she said with con­sid­er­able sat­is­fac­tion, “they can drop and give me 20.”

For such drills it was es­sen­tial to en­sure pri­vacy from pry­ing — that is to say mas­cu­line — eyes. Over­seen by fe­male in­struc­tors, the of­fi­cer can­di­dates worked out and at­tended classes in a “fe­male-pure”

‘Most of them could barely do a push-up with their knees bent when they started out. [Now] they can drop and give me 20.’ — U.S. Army Capt. Ja­nis Lullen,

a re­servist with the Ok­la­homa City-based 95th Train­ing Di­vi­sion

com­pound in down­town Kabul.

A new fa­cil­ity is be­ing con­structed for them at the main Kabul Mil­i­tary Train­ing Cen­ter, and the next women’s of­fi­cer-can­di­date class is ex­pected to be five times the size of this one.

Like the army as a whole, the class in­cluded mem­bers of Afghanistan’s var­ied eth­nic groups. How­ever, there are more Ta­jiks and Hazaras than Pash­tuns, the eth­nic group from which the Tal­iban is mostly drawn, and which of­ten hews to a more con­ser­va­tive so­cial code.

As so of­ten hap­pens in Afghanistan, what ap­pears to be an ad­vance for women is sim­ply a mat­ter of re­gain­ing rights once freely en­joyed.

Twenty years ago, it was not un­com­mon for women to hold top ranks in the Afghan mil­i­tary. But dur­ing the fe­ro­cious civil war of the early 1990s, fol­lowed by the five-year reign of the Tal­iban move­ment, women could barely leave home, let alone hold po­si­tions of author­ity out­side it.

Though some re­cruits wres­tle with relatives’ dis­ap­proval — the four women who dropped out of this class all cited fam­ily prob­lems, train­ers said — some re­ceive warm sup­port, even from fa­thers and hus­bands.

Jamila Amiri, a 29-yearold mother of five from Par­wan prov­ince, north of the cap­i­tal, was hugged and con­grat­u­lated by her train­ers as her hus­band looked on, beam­ing.

“This is one of my most happy days ever,” she said, wip­ing her eyes and clutch­ing a spray of flow­ers.

Grad­u­a­tion day also meant a lot to the train­ers.

“They were shy at first, but then so ea­ger,” said Staff Sgt. Re­bekah Martinez, an­other re­servist trainer. “To think of where they came from, what they’ve dealt with in their lives, and how ded­i­cated they are, to me, it’s in­spi­ra­tional.”

Ge­munu Amaras­inghe

PI­O­NEERS: Newly trained fe­male army of­fi­cers take front seats at their grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony at the Kabul Mil­i­tary Train­ing Cen­ter. Of­fi­cials hope to even­tu­ally go from a few hun­dred to 30,000 fe­male sol­diers

Ge­munu Amaras­inghe

READY TO SERVE: Of­fi­cers ap­plaud as a col­league re­ceives her grad­u­a­tion cer­tifi­cate at a cer­e­mony in Kabul. The women, who will take ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tions, may yet face hur­dles in the male-dom­i­nated army.

Beris Rezee

GRAD­U­ATE: One of the new fe­male of­fi­cers. The next women’s class is ex­pected to have 150 re­cruits.

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