Afghanistan: “Kalashnikov matriarch” holds out

Afghanistan’s only female warlord, her existence heretofore a rumor, has been contacted by journalists in the remote Darisujan Valley of northern Baghlan province. From The Telegraph, Feb. 18:

Fearless female warlord now has UN in her sights
From Tom Coghlan in the Darisujan Valley

Her eyesight has faded to the point where she can no longer shoot straight and her limbs have grown stiff, but Afghanistan’s only female warlord is still unassailable in her remote eyrie high in the mountains of north-east Afghanistan.

Known as Kaftar, or “The Pigeon”, 55-year-old Bibi Ayisha has fought off the Russians, the Taliban and a host of local rivals.

She appears unperturbed by her next battle, with the United Nations, whose negotiators will this month begin trying to coax her reputed arsenal of weapons away from her under a nationwide disarmament programme.

Speaking from her fortified house, with her four surviving sons at her side, two hours’ drive up a river bed from the nearest settlement, she greeted news of the UN mission with derision.

“We haven’t got any weapons left, apart from this pistol” she said, tapping the Russian Makarov in her shoulder holster. She said she handed in her weapons under a previous disarmament drive including a cherished, World War Two-vintage British.303 Lee-Enfield rifle.

But UN officials believe Kaftar still has an arsenal that may include modern anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, heavy machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs, enough to arm 50 fighters.

Kaftar joined the resistance during the Soviet invasion, she claims. Her father was a powerful tribal leader and she had a naturally warlike temperament.

“It makes no difference if you are a man or a woman when you have the heart of a fighter,” she said. Kaftar claims to lead 150 men and her only concession to gender roles on the battlefield is that she requires a male relative to be present when she is fighting, in line with Afghan tradition for women outside the home.

The death of several of her brothers in battle gradually propelled her towards command of the group her family controlled.

When two of her six sons were also killed she took command, fighting against the Taliban. Her husband meanwhile was a businessman whose reputation suffered in the eyes of local people because he was seen as allowing his wife to wear the trousers. He died two years ago.

Despite four years of foreign military presence in Afghanistan the UN estimates that 2,000 groups are still resisting disarmament across the country. Many are deeply involved with the huge opium industry and their activities are seen as an impediment to the establishment of security and stability.

The country remains awash with weaponry. Last year the house of one supposedly disarmed commander in Baghlan was consumed in a vast explosion that obliterated most of the surrounding village. The blast was caused by an unstable arsenal of old munitions hidden under his house.

The densest concentration of illegal armed groups is in areas of the north-east which the Taliban, who tended to disband such militias, never succeeded in conquering. The problems facing the UN programme are immense because outside Afghanistan’s cities the government’s control is weak and armed confrontation is a way of life.

In the words of the old Afghan proverb, “zar, zan, zamin” – money, women and land – are the root of most of the feuds which dominate life. The tribal system of Loya Jirga, conflict resolution through councils of elders, is the only means of settling the frequent outbreaks of violence. The exchange of money or women is often the preferred alternative to reciprocal killings over generations.

“The commanders are afraid to disarm because they have so many enemies, and many people fear the return of the Taliban. Kaftar was a cruel commander. She has a great many enemies,” said Qari Alam, 50, a local who mediates between the government and the armed commanders in the region.

This week 23 former commanders graduated from a UN-run course in business management that aims to retrain men whose only schooling is a lifetime of war. In total 460 former commanders have gone through similar courses.

It seems unlikely, however, that Kaftar will join the scheme any time soon. “I am still wishing for a fight,” she warned.

Further details are provided by Anthony Loyd of the London Times (via

The legend of Kaftar had long persisted, with tales reaching Kabul of a woman based in a remote valley in the country’s northern Baghlan province who fought against the Soviet Union and then the Taleban.

It was not until April this year, as a UN programme to disarm Afghanistan’s child soldiers was put into effect, that the rumours were confirmed. UN officials returned to the capital saying they had discovered Kaftar, living in the Darisujan valley with an entourage of Mujahidin, including children and female bodyguards.

Denuded of her command by a subsequent demilitarisation programme, she now lives on her own except for her horse, her guns and her sons. She is haunted by memories of a lifetime’s fighting, embroiled in blood feuds and troubled by an abstract concept of peace.

“We Mujahidin have not been given our rights,” she complains, her face framed by thick braids beneath an open scarf. “We fought for so long but this Karzai Government has given us nothing.”

Kaftar, whose real name is Bibi Aisha, is unable to read or write and puts her age at between 50 and 55. Her ascent to military command was made possible by violent tribal infighting and the power of her father Haji Dawlat.

The eldest of ten children by the second of Dawlat’s seven wives, Kaftar was his favourite. She was carrying a gun by the age of 14, defending her home against rival families, and had killed her first man long before the Soviet invasion of 1979.

“I can’t remember how many I have killed since,” she says. “I remember getting my first Russian though. It was early in the occupation and he was a commando. He was close. A young man. I shot him. Later at the Battle of Kelagai we were killing so many we just threw their bodies in the river.”

She married a businessman named Shad Muhammad, the same year she took up arms. He bankrolled her gunslinging family. They later divorced.

Her seven sons, two of whom were killed on operations under her command, became the mainstay of her power after her father died in 1981. Of the 1,200 fighters Kaftar led, mounted on a horse and dressed in US-style combats, 400 were family members including two step sisters who were her bodyguards. “But I never had a problem giving orders to men,” she insists. “My father was head of a powerful tribe.”

The death of two of her boys along with one of her brothers, slain in combat with the Taleban, appears not to trouble her. It was the death of her commander, the iconic Ahmad Shah Masood, assassinated by a suicide bomber in September 2001, that now shadows her days.

“Oh, Masood!” she sighs. “I smiled as I buried my sons, because they died in the way of God fighting a jihad, and I was proud of them. But Masood was my leader and was murdered. It was the saddest day of my life.”

As the chill of an autumn afternoon settles around her home, she kills a chicken for her foreign guests, even though it is Ramadan and she cannot eat until sunset. Her reputation for cruelty seems unfounded.

But after we leave her cousin Abdul Ghaffur, a former Mujahid whose legs were blown off by a mine on the last day of the war, speaks. “You saw the blood of the chicken in the yard,” he says. “But you didn’t see the blood in the stables.

“Two of Kaftar’s sons cut the throat of a 20-year-old man from another family there three weeks ago on her orders. There have been killings in this valley as long as anyone can remember, and there will be killings for a long time to come. And Kaftar’s family are always involved. Don’t mistake her. Tough, yes. But very cruel.”

See our last post on Afghanistan.

  1. Afghanistan: “Kalashnikov matriarch” surrenders
    Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi writes for IWPR, July 9, 2008:

    The Afghan government scored a minor victory last month by reeling in a rebellious “warlord” who led a band of warriors over nearly three decades. What really set this case apart is that the militia commander is a woman.

    The authorities’ decision to co-opt rather than capture Bibi Aysha, who goes by the nickname Kaftar (“the pigeon”), has upset locals who say that given her record, she is unlikely to accept the strictures of civilian life, still less a job as a public servant.

    Kaftar probably never meant to strike a blow for gender equality, but over the years she has shown that an Afghan woman can make just as tough and ruthless a warlord as her male counterparts.

    Now 55, Kaftar has fought almost everyone from the Russians and the Taleban to the present government of President Hamed Karzai.

    Until recently, she had the dubious distinction of being the only paramilitary commander – outside the Taleban and its allies – still in open confrontation with the Afghan state.

    Last month, she surrendered to the government together with five armed men, most of them her relatives. It was the second time she had laid down her weapons since the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001.

    Kaftar is a well-known figure in her native Baghlan province, which lies due north of the capital Kabul.

    Legend has it that she became a fighter by accident, when she grabbed a gun to kill the Soviet soldiers who had shot her son during the mujaheddin war of the Eighties.

    Her success later led to her appointment as local commander for the Jamiat-e-Islami faction, whose military leader was Ahmad Shah Massoud. After Taleban forces captured Kabul in 1996 and pushed north, Kaftar claims to have commanded 2,000 armed men resisting their advance.

    After the United States-led invasion sent the Taleban running, Kafter surrendered her weapons under a government-run demobilisation programme. She even entered political life briefly, representing Baghlan’s Nahrin district during the Emergency Loya Jirga, the 2002 assembly that hammered out a structure for government and confirmed Karzai as head of state pending an election.

    But apparently she was missing the thrill of the fight.

    “After I defeated the Taleban militants, I surrendered all of my arms to the government,” she told IWPR and other reporters recently. “Then I had to sell my cows to buy back weapons.”

    In recent years, Kaftar has been accused of mounting an armed rebellion against the government, as well as other crimes such as robbery, extortion and drug trafficking.

    Speaking to the reporters, she denied involvement in robbery or any other security problems.

    This year, the government ran out of patience, and in May the security forces launched an operation to capture Kaftar.

    She slipped away and holed up in the mountains with some of her men.

    General Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, commander of the Afghan National Police in the northern provinces, issued a warning that his men would annihilate her and her associates unless they gave themselves up.

    Since Patang had the backing of the Afghan army as well as NATO forces, Kaftar decided the time was right to come in from the cold.

    But now that the government has got her, they have to decide what to do with her.

    “Because she surrendered, the government will forgive her for her rebellion,” said Baghlan police chief General Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili. “But if someone accuses her of any other crime, she will have to answer for it in court.”

    Baghlan’s provincial governor Abdul Jabar Haqbeen was even more conciliatory, saying, “She ended her opposition and surrendered to the government, thanks to dialogue and efforts pursued by provincial officials.”

    Haqbeen said his provincial administration was considering offering Kaftar an official post.

    Local residents insist Kaftar is still dangerous and should be locked up.

    “Kaftar is allied with a local Taleban commander Mullah Dad-e Khuda, who has recently escaped from Bagram prison,” said one resident, speaking on condition of anonymity. “She also has ties to another local warlord called Imam-e Sabz [the Green Imam]. They control all the drug trafficking routes.”

    According to this man, the trio have been operating in opium poppy-growing areas, offering farmers protection and fighting off the police.

    “If she is not imprisoned, she will come back as she’s done before,” he said.

    The whereabouts of the rest of Kaftar’s militia remains a mystery. According to local residents and officials, she had more than 200 armed men under her command.

    “It absolutely true that she commanded dozens of armed men,” said a resident of Nahrin. “If she hadn’t, the government would have captured her before now.”

    He speculated that Kaftar may have transferred her men to her ally Dad-e-Khuda.

    “Kaftar is familiar with the techniques of warfare, and she won’t surrender all of her men at once,” he said. “This may just be one of her tactics. She may rejoin her men in the mountains.”

    Officials are downplaying Kaftar’s significance, and told IWPR her life as an outlaw was over.

    “These are all rumours. Where could she get hundreds of men?” said police chief Sayedkhili. “She only led some of her sons and grandsons, all of whom surrendered. She was running a few nests of robbers in the mountain areas.

    “But now she has no power and can live like an ordinary Afghan citizen.”