KABUL, Afghanistan -- In Afghanistan, where women have traditionally been treated as shut-ins and worse, 29 Afghan women are taking a daring step: They are the first volunteers to undergo training to serve in the all-male Afghan national army.
Two American women, Rebekah Martinez and Jennifer Marcos, are among a cadre of U.S. Army Reserve drill sergeants spending six months away from their families to train the Afghan women here.
Meanwhile, the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, reportedly has issued new orders for his Taliban fighters to begin again targeting women cooperating with Americans or helping their own government. Assassinations, suicide bombing and IED attacks may follow, on the women -- and on their families.
When the U.S. Army drill sergeant community heard that Afghan women wanted military training, it leapt at the chance. Volunteers were sought. Martinez came from Longview, Texas, where she is a police officer. Marcos flew from Salt Lake City, where she works with prison inmates. Two weeks after signing up they were in Afghanistan.
"It's pretty exciting -- we couldn't get here fast enough,'' Marcos told me one day recently in Kabul, where they are about halfway through the 20-week course.
Basic for women here is nothing like U.S. Army basic or, for that matter, the entry training given to male Afghan soldiers. The women meet in a classroom in downtown Kabul -- indoors, away from prying eyes. They do not mingle with men. They take meals in a separate mess hall. They have a tiny, secluded patch of earth for exercise, where they have learned, with some giggling, to do push-ups. They've been introduced to the 9 mm pistol and been taught combat first aid. They study leadership and English, and do computer work. Harder academic subjects will come later.
Most of the women are poor. Already they have lived hard lives. Some have seen family members killed. All have been touched by war. They seem driven to rise above their pasts. Some have children; signing up with the military puts their kids at risk, too. But they are determined. "They have heart,'' Marcos said.
Martinez added, "They want to get out there and work hard to prove they can do it.''
Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who rules the Taliban, would smash this opportunity. Omar is a world-class misogynist. When he was in power in Afghanistan, education for girls and women ended (officially, that is; many courageous women continued to teach in hiding). Girls schools were burned. Social justice, for women, went back to the Stone Age. Women were banished from public life and severely punished for such transgressions as speaking to a man.
According to a July 16 dispatch by McClatchy Newspapers
, U.S. intelligence officials intercepted a directive from Mullah Omar ordering his fighters to "capture or kill'' women and Afghan civilians working with the Afghan government or the allies. The story said a Taliban spokesman dismissed the report as American propaganda.
The women are undeterred. Eventually they will take jobs in the Afghan army in finance and logistics. Those skills are badly needed. But their actions shine a light far beyond their military desk jobs. Already their determination to step forward -- and the Afghan army's eagerness to accept them -- is encouraging others to come forward. And the ripples spread, unseen.
The benefit goes both ways. The Afghan women's quiet determination has touched the Americans deeply.
"A lot of us want to come back as civilians and help,'' Martinez said. "We see how much these girls want something different, and how willing they are to work hard for it. We've grown really close to them and want to see them succeed.''