Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Women join Afghan special forces

Female members of Afghan special forces, first row, pose after practicing a house raid on the outskirts of Kabul (AP)

The Afghan army is training women special forces troops to carry out night raids against insurgents, breaking new ground in an ultra-conservative society and filling a vacuum left by departing international forces.

"If men can carry out this duty why not women?" said Lena Abdali, 23, who was one of the first women to join one of the special units in 2011.

Night raids have long been a divisive issue between Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who does not want foreign troops entering Afghan homes, and the US-led coalition that says the raids are essential to capturing Taliban commanders.

Many Afghans, however, have complained that the house raids are culturally offensive. Having male troops search Afghan females is taboo. So is touching a family's Koran or entering a home without being invited.

Another focus of anger has been the disregard for privacy and Afghan culture because women and children are usually home during the raids.

The raids are now conducted jointly by US and Afghan forces, but the female Afghan special forces soldiers play an important role. Their job is to round up women and children and get them to safety while guarding against the potential dangers of female suicide bombers or militants disguised in women's clothes.

The missions have taken on increasing importance and the Afghan government and the US-led coalition have stepped up training of the Afghan special forces as international troops prepare to end their combat mission in 23 months.

President Barack Obama is to withdraw about half of the 66,000 US troops now in Afghanistan within a year. He did not spell out what US military presence would remain after 2014.

Afghan women have been part of their nation's security forces for years, but did not start being recruited for the special forces until 2011. Defence Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said more than 1,000 women were in the army - a small fraction of the total force of 195,000.

Colonel Jalaluddin Yaftaly, the commander of the joint Special Unit of the Afghan National Army, said villagers do not like foreign forces to carry out operations in their homes, but have welcomed the Afghan special forces units and co-operated with them in many operations. "We were faced with so many problems when we didn't have female special forces in our units," Col Yaftaly said. "Female special forces are quite useful."

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