KABUL, Afghanistan – In a long, male-led conflict, she has been a rare warlord, defending her stronghold in northern Afghanistan against the Taliban, her own parents and even against the state-backed central government- United with which it is allied.
As she grew into her 70s sick and bedridden with bad knees, warlord Bibi Ayesha was proud to have an undefeated record in decades of war. She is popularly known as the War: Commander Kaftar, which means ‘pigeon’ in Farsi, ‘because she moved and killed with the elegance of a bird,’ as one profile put it.
On Thursday, the Taliban declared the end of his high-flying days: Commander Kaftar and his men had surrendered to them, they said in a statement.
“The officials of our Invitation and Orientation Commission welcomed them,” the statement said.
Local officials in the troubled Baghlan province, where she is based, and her relatives confirmed the commander’s surrender and said it was an act of survival. Her valley was so surrounded, with other neighboring militias already changing sides to the Taliban, that she had no choice.
Mohammad Hanif Kohgadai, a member of the Baghlan provincial council representing Commander Kaftar’s district, said she made a deal through a Taliban commander linked to her family.
“The Taliban spent the night with Commander Kaftar, they ate there,” Khohgadai said in an interview on Friday. “Today they left home and took 13 weapons and other military equipment with them.”
One of Commander Kaftar’s sons played down the episode, saying it was more of a truce than surrender.
“It’s just a rumor. My mother is sick, ”said Raz Mohammad, one of her three remaining sons. (Three others were killed over the years of fighting.) “She did not join the Taliban. We are no longer fighting the Taliban; we have weapons to protect us from our enemies. “
The surrender of Commander Kaftar does little for the Taliban militarily, but is yet another propaganda victory against the ailing Afghan government, suggesting that in a bloody and stalled war some were switching sides for the insurgents. The Taliban have increasingly reached out to those who are disillusioned with the Afghan government as the country’s military struggles against the backdrop of the continued US withdrawal.
For a group that kept women confined to their homes when they were in power in the 1990s, a Taliban alliance with a female commander could prove tricky. The Taliban have yet to provide detailed positions in the ongoing peace talks on the role of women in a future government. But what makes it easy for Commander Kaftar to change is that she commands hundreds of men in a deeply conservative and misogynistic society.
The surrender exposes the Afghan government’s greater vulnerability: its defenses depend in part on thousands of unreliable militias with a history of abuse and local feuds, and a history of changing sides.
President Ashraf Ghani has sent mixed signals about militias over the years.
When Mr. Ghani came to power in late 2014, he aggressively attempted to dismantle the militias. Facing the president’s wrath, the militia commanders simply refused to fight the Taliban, clearing the way for the insurgents to march on the town of Kunduz.
In recent years, as the Afghan army and police have been called upon against the Taliban offensives, Mr. Ghani has accepted the militias as a reality. Over the summer, the Afghan president publicly declared “investing more” in some militias as a line of defense.
Commander Kaftar’s experience speaks to the complex reality upon which US-funded democracy was built – on the legacy of a previous invasion and years of anarchy and warlord rule.
Her reputation began to grow with the murder of Soviet commandos who invaded her valley in an invasion from 1979. She has not laid down her arms since, raising a militia that protected her valley like her small kingdom. Even when the Taliban swept most of Afghanistan in the 1990s, she pushed them back.
She often recounted how she mocked the Taliban commander in her province with a lose-lose offer: if she stopped him, she paraded him around town on a donkey and people would laugh at him for being defeated by a woman. . What if he stopped her? The city would scold the Taliban commander for arresting a woman.
After the American invasion in 2001, the new Afghan government decided to disarm militias like its own. She and many other militia commanders resisted. Asked about the government’s willingness to disarm it, she replied, “If they come, you’ll see what I’m going to do to the government.”
Even in Kabul, she was celebrated as an anti-Taliban hero and an inspiration to women, with the country’s former human rights chief attending a celebration on her behalf hosted by the vice president of the Afghanistan.
“This war will not end in peace – only God, or this beautiful Kalashinkov can solve it,” she once said in an interview with the gun in her lap. “The Taliban are not capable of change or reform.”
But even as the media reports the list of 20 of his family members lost in the war with the Taliban, much of his struggle in recent years has involved a spiral of family feuds.
Some of those disputes, including an argument with one of her sisters, dragged on for more than two decades with scores of deaths on either side. In another protracted feud, she chased a relative from the valley after death on both sides, only for the man to return years later as the commander of the Taliban to whom she has now surrendered.
News of Commander Kaftar’s fate raised questions as to whether it was the result of a truce between two families, or as it was presented publicly: the surrender of a militia commander to a leader. taliban. In large parts of Afghanistan, with increasingly blurred lines of war, the two are the same.
“Commander Pigeon was a decrepit old warlord, a ruined woman,” writer Jennifer Percy wrote in a 2014 profile in The New Republic. “Lonely, she survived on attention, on her ability to inspire fear through the power of her own myth. In Afghanistan, the ability to create mythology is powerful, perhaps even more powerful than military prowess.