Afghanistan’s Former Female Troops, Once Hailed by the West, Fear for Their Lives

KABUL—When the Taliban seized Kabul in August, Samima dug a hole in her courtyard and buried her Afghan Air Force uniform. The Taliban discovered her past anyway, and gave her a call days later.

In a panic, she switched off her phone, got rid of her SIM card and fled her house. She says Taliban gunmen have since showed up at her parents’ home, asking for people who served in the armed forces. She now is living in hiding, desperately hoping for a way out of Afghanistan.

“Thousands of girls like me are receiving threats, face an uncertain future and are being tracked by the Taliban,” said Samima, 26 years old, who currently lives with her husband in a one-room flat with no money for food or heating, and asked to have only her first name used. “The U.S. and the international community said they would support us no matter what. But they have forgotten us.”

Washington and its allies touted the creation of female Afghan police and military units as one of the flagship accomplishments of the West’s effort to empower women in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led coalition repeatedly publicized the achievements of female troops and police, despite the cultural sensitivities that pushed many of those women to keep their profession secret. Before the fall of the Afghan republic, there were around 6,300 women on the payroll of the armed forces and the police, around 2% of the total personnel.

Now, these women are among the most vulnerable groups left behind, with no clear pathway to leave the country despite the risk they face from both the Taliban and, often, their own families for violating the Afghan society’s conservative norms.

“They have relocated musicians, soccer players and artists, and their lives were not at risk as much as ours,” Samima said. “The lives of women who served in the military are in danger because we served in the military.”

Lailuma, who used to work as a police officer in a call center, holds a photo of herself in a police uniform. She sold her belongings and relocated from her home address.

Only Afghan female police and soldiers who worked in special circumstances with the U.S. may qualify for a referral to a program to enter the U.S. as refugees. But that process is costly, as it requires applying from a third country, and could take years, according to U.S. officials.

“Many of these women don’t have years left. If they worked with the prior government or with U.S. forces, truthfully, there is a bounty on their head,” said a U.S. Air Force officer who knows Samima and who is involved in private efforts to resettle at-risk Afghans. “I have lost hope. I will keep trying but realistically I know they are not going to get out.”

The Taliban have promised a general amnesty to all soldiers and police after seizing power Aug. 15. However, many former service members have been assassinated since then, a figure that Human Rights Watch puts at over a hundred in just four of the country’s 37 provinces.

Among the victims are four female Air Force officers in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, according to a person who used to oversee the female department of the Afghan Air Force. Two of them, sisters, were killed at home by unknown gunmen and two others were found dead after they met someone posing as a nongovernment organization worker offering to evacuate them, the person said.

The Taliban denied responsibility for these and other recent killings of former Afghan officials and security personnel.

“We hear that the employees of the former government are saying that they aren’t safe here. If the mujahedeen wanted to take revenge from these people, they could have done it when they first took over,” the Taliban government’s Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund said in a recent speech. “But they didn’t. No one can prove harm being inflicted to even a single person during the entire period of the conquest. The forgiveness, mercy and compassion the mujahedeen have shown to the former government’s employees have no precedent in the history of mankind.”

In August, the U.S. and allies airlifted more than 100,000 Afghans, including tens of thousands of women at risk. Since then, opportunities for Afghans to escape the country have virtually ground to a halt. The U.S. only offers seats on limited evacuation flights to Americans, U.S. permanent residents and a small pool of visa applicants, most of whom worked directly for the U.S. and have cleared most vetting. Private rescue efforts have been on pause for weeks because no country is willing to take in Afghan refugees.

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