Female Afghan commander who aided US troops awaits asylum

By Susana Samhan

Washington, Aug 29 (EFE).- Mahnaz Akbari knows what it takes to break barriers: as a child, she wanted to be a pilot, soldier, or neurosurgeon. She ended up becoming the commander of the only female military platoon in Afghanistan until the rise of the Taliban forced her to flee to the US, where she is waiting for an asylum that has not materialized.

Dressed in typical Afghan attire, Akbari receives Efe in her apartment outside of Washington DC, where she lives with two nieces after leaving Afghanistan with US troops two years ago.

This 37-year-old woman recalls her adventures and conveys a sense of calm, which helped her to be chosen to lead the Female Tactical Platoon in Afghanistan. This group had up to 60 women and collaborated with US soldiers for years.

Akbari was born in a refugee camp in Iran, where her parents escaped after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They stayed there until 2011, when they decided to return to their country, 10 years after the invasion of US forces following the 9/11 attacks.

At that time, “we understood that Afghanistan was a safe place and that women were allowed to go to school, that there was freedom, democracy, so we decided to go back,” Akbari says.

She was a calligraphy teacher, but when she saw the situation in the country, she wanted to join the Armed Forces, even though “culturally” many people did not consider it “appropriate” for a woman to work as a soldier and have to spend months away alongside US and Afghan men in the military.

A policewoman friend helped her enlist, and after receiving training at the US Camp Scorpion in Kabul, she began to participate in missions.

She used to participate in night raids on Taliban and terrorist group houses to gather intelligence on their wives and children.

At first, Afghan soldiers doubted that a woman could carry out such operations. Still, after a couple of years, they “understood” that they could not do without them, thanks to the valuable intelligence they obtained on possible Taliban targets and the location of their weapons stockpiles.

Many women in the platoon had to hide their work from the people around them.

Some had to lie to their family and neighbors. They usually told them that they worked as a teacher or another similar job.

In the end, the families supported them because every time they returned to their unit, they had to bring a paper signed by a male guardian, such as a brother or father, expressing their agreement.

Throughout the years she was in the platoon, one mission stuck in Akbari’s memory. It was one in which they broke into a house after midnight in a remote region of Afghanistan, where there was a very frightened older man, several women, and children. There was a girl “about 13 or 14 years old” who stared at her and asked, “Are you a female?”

“And I said ‘yes, I am a woman,’ she understood from my voice and my scarf, because it was at night and I was wearing a helmet, night vision was difficult,” says Akbari, who describes the teenager’s “surprise”, given that in remote areas of the country, women are not even allowed to go to school.

It was the first time the young girl had seen a woman in military uniform, and she asked her if she had something to give her as a gift “to keep it for my whole life,” the girl told the commander.

Akbari gave her a hairpin.

“I always say that maybe it’s funny or interesting to people, but I always say no, it is not funny, not interesting, there is pain behind it, because it means that even living in the 21st century, there are women in many countries like Afghanistan who are not allowed to go to school and don’t know their rights,” she adds.

The now ex-military woman does not know what will have become of that girl, although she is sure that she had “a lot of babies.”

“But I’m sure she will tell them this story so they may have a brighter future,” Akbari says.

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