KABUL — Business isn’t what it used to be for Afghanistan’s only female warlord.
Disarmament, death threats and dwindling foreign contracts have led to this: Commander Kaftar, the once-swaggering, gunslinging militia leader, visiting Kabul to scratch for government contracts and imploring a reporter to help her and her sons get visas to the United States.
“I want to leave the country because of security problems,” she said. “Me and my people all are in danger.”
A uniquely Afghan feminist symbol for some, Kaftar was a commander under famed Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud during the 1980s, when the Mujihedeen battled Soviet forces, often fighting in rugged, mountainous terrain. She says she gained the nickname Kaftar, which means “dove” in Dari, because she scaled mountains with such ease, it was as if she were flying.
Kaftar rose to local prominence as the post-Soviet government collapsed in 1992 and Afghanistan descended into a bloody civil war. As combat between rival factions raged in Kabul, she refashioned herself as a militia leader, fighting for her little piece of Baghlan province and, she says, battling the Taliban after they took power in 1996.
Depending on whom you talk to, she has been bravely confronting insurgents since or making shady deals with them to avoid violence. Either way, she was respected and feared by local villagers and gained some fame from her position as Afghanistan’s only female warlord.
Her supporters paint a picture of a powerful role model and voice for women in a deeply conservative society, while her enemies see her as an illiterate murderer, preying upon destitute villagers.
“She helped women when she was powerful,” said Nadera Nahrinwal, a friend of Kaftar’s who works for the Baghlan provincial government. “She’s still trying to help people.”
Others say Kaftar is little more than a thug.
Sadrudin Ahmadi, whose uncle runs a rival militia and whose father is a local tribal leader, accuses Kaftar of murdering three of his brothers and ordering robberies, kidnappings and rapes throughout Nahrin district. Kaftar won’t say if that’s true; she and others say Ahmadi’s family is responsible for revenge killings.
“Every year, [Kaftar’s fighters] block the road from [the provincial capital] Pul-e Khumri to Nahrin and rob people,” Ahmadi said.
Mullanah Fazel, the former Nahrin district governor, said he quit in disgust after watching local police stand by as feuds between Kaftar and her rivals engulfed the area in violence. He laughed when asked what he thinks of Kaftar.
“Once I was asked the same question and I called Kaftar a murderer and she was unhappy with me,” he said.
Even Nahrinwal, her friend, admits Kaftar has blood on her hands after countless cycles of violence over the past two decades, with tit-for-tat killings becoming commonplace in Nahrin district. Though she blames the government for not coming to Kaftar’s aid, Nahrinwal said the rivalries have been the undoing of the area.
“Because of these feuds, Nahrin district was unable to develop,” she said. “All people talk about is feuds, no one talks about development.”
Friend and foe alike agree that Kaftar once wielded enormous power in the district. But these latter years of war have not been kind to the commander, whose birth name is Bibi Aisha.
Kaftar once controlled hundreds of fighters, who were the defacto police for the Sujan Valley. She freely admits they collected protection money, as well as food and animals, but says villagers gave voluntarily because they wanted her forces to provide security in the area.
She became famous for sauntering around town with a Makarov pistol on her hip, and she courted international media attention for the oddity of being a woman in one of the most male-dominated rackets in the world.
But her fighting days are largely in the past, her gait halting, and her power has faded with age.
Several years ago, she disarmed — mostly — under a program aimed at reducing the power of Afghan warlords, who often act as judge, jury and executioner and treat areas under their control as personal fiefdoms. She handed over hundreds of weapons and let go most of her fighters.
She still maintains around 30 armed men, but says the protection money and gifts of food she used to get from villagers in rural Nahrin district have largely dried up.
Her list of enemies has piled up over the years, and the bloody feuds have taken their toll, costing the lives of two of her sons and 15 family members, she says, and causing Kaftar to flee the Sujan Valley where she once reigned supreme.
Last year, Kaftar made the risky decision to go into the construction business, just as foreigners began to leave the country, taking with them much of the development money that has kept Afghanistan afloat during the past 11 years of war. Her gamble did not pay off and now her company has no projects. She visited Kabul earlier this year in hopes of securing work from the Afghan government or foreigners, but left empty-handed.
She still hopes to drum up business, but she’d rather get out of the country.
“Maybe you can talk to the U.S. Embassy to get me and my sons visas,” she said during an interview.
Kaftar fashions herself a hero to Afghan women, who still are treated as second-class citizens in the country, and paints her bid for assistance as a push for female empowerment.
“You can ask the embassies why they are not helping women,” one of her nephews said, as Kaftar explained her difficulties securing foreign contracts.
Despite the setbacks, Kaftar has retained much of her bravado, and her weathered face breaks into a grin when talking about her glory days.
When asked if she’s ever fired her prized Makarov pistol, she uttered a vulgarity before leveling her gaze. “Many times,” she said, adding that she had killed many Russians during the Soviet war.
But, she said, those times of living by the gun are past. Growing up without education and amid constant war, living by the gun was her only path to success, she said. It was a path she doesn’t wish for her daughters and granddaughters.
“I want them to become powerful through education,” she said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.