KABUL (Reuters) - Crouching behind a wooden barrier, 27-year-old Sergeant Sara Delawar fires her M-4 rifle at a target showing the silhouette of a man, part of a training exercise for Afghan special forces.
Anxious to defuse tensions stoked by foreign male soldiers raiding Afghans’ homes at night in what is a conservative Muslim country, Afghanistan has begun training elite female troops to join Afghan male soldiers on operations.
“Before we joined this unit, our operations were done by foreign troops and they did not know our culture. People were critical so we joined to help out,” Delawar, a former policewoman in Jowzjan province, said.
“I have already fought the Taliban. My comrades were martyred in fights with the Taliban and we have killed them too, but during the night raids I haven’t fought insurgents yet.”
Fluent in four local languages, Delawar is one of only 12 female soldiers who has been trained to fight and conduct searches in what is an attempt to pay greater respect to cultural sensitivities.
Surprise night raids in pursuit of militants have long stoked anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan, with many locals seeing them as assaults on their privacy and on women’s privacy in particular.
In conservative southern areas of the country where the Taliban is strong, such raids have created even more ill will.
On Sunday after months of tense negotiations, Afghanistan and the United States agreed that only Afghan forces would search residential homes or compounds.
As well as seeking to assuage cultural sensitivities, the new strategy is aimed at lowering civilian casualties and shoring up President Hamid Karzai’s popularity at a time when foreign combat troops are handing over to Afghan forces.
“It’s unacceptable for us to see male soldiers body-searching females. Men are not allowed to touch females,” third-lieutenant Binazir, 24, said.
“I‘m proud to say that I‘m here to serve my country side by side with my brothers. I‘m proud that Afghan girls are here and I hope more girls join in order to provide better services for brothers and sisters in the battlefield and save lives.”
At a training facility on the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital, suspected militants inside a mock-up house are advised to leave the building via loudspeaker. A hijab-wearing woman cries and asks where the soldiers are taking her brother.
Female soldiers lead her by the arm away from the scene.
“The training they’ve already received in this unit has had a good outcome during night raids,” Captain Mohammad Khalid, head of training at the special forces, said.
“In order to launch our operations in a good manner we have to have 100 female officers in our forces.”
The program began two months ago and drew women from the Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen and Hazara ethnic groups, but not from the Pashtun where the Taliban recruit most of their fighters.
The task of finding women has become even more important ahead of a pullout of most NATO combat troops by the end of 2014.
Afghanistan is still recovering from the strict social conservatism of the Taliban, whose hardline laws during their 1996-2001 rule marginalized women, stripping them of the right to work, study or move freely.
The country remains one of the world’s worst places for women and setting up female special forces was not an easy task.
Recruitment is especially tricky. Women are put off by the prospect of social rejection and disapproval from their families.
Traditionally confined to their homes, women also face problems their male comrades do not.
“My children were attending school in Jowzjan, but here they don’t because I‘m not at home and they can’t go by themselves,” said Delawar, a mother-of-two and a widow.
“I hope there is support for them to get educated especially when I‘m out of my house on the duty.”
Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Andrew Osborn