Afghanistan’s national forces are at the forefront of the war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, and the reality on the ground is sobering: the soldiers are outnumbered by the Taliban in their outposts, casualties are high, and the body count (on both sides) increases daily. According to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, an estimated 45,000 security force personnel have been killed since 2014. Soldiers work long hours for low wages — often paid late — and are underequipped, with insufficient weapons and supplies to defend the provinces.
With low recruitment levels, rising numbers of casualties, and relentless territorial gains by the Taliban and armed opposition groups, the strength of the Afghan forces is now at its lowest level in four years, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Two years ago, Kabul’s military training academy churned out enthusiastic recruits, eager to serve in the forces and proud to be part of the effort to secure their country. The once bustling female dormitories offered a safe space for divorcées and widows in training and even offered to house the cadets’ children. But now, the hallways are empty. Despite this, Fatima Sadat, a 24-year-old major, keeps busy as the war rages on. “When the men are wounded on the battlefield, or killed, who will be the one to fill out the reports? Who will take care of informing the families? There are a lot of important things to deal with daily,” she says.
Women, like Sadat, often continue to face opposition from families and male colleagues in the armed forces, and many fear returning to their home provinces because of threats from insurgent groups. The 2004 Afghan Constitution incorporates the principle of gender equality before the law and allows women some hard-earned rights, such as the right to education and to employment. However, the constitution also declares Islam as a state religion, and conservative interpretations of Islamic law still predominantly guide Afghan culture and often conflict with women’s human rights standards across many areas. Outside the…