A Storied Feminine Warlord Surrenders, Taliban Say, Exposing Afghan Weak spot

KABUL, Afghanistan – In a long conflict waged by men, she was a rare female warlord defending her fiefdom in northern Afghanistan against the Taliban, her own relatives, and even the American-backed central government with which she had allied.

As she grew into her 70s, sick and bedridden with bad knees, warlord Bibi Ayesha was proud to have had an unbeaten record in decades of war. She is popularly known by a nom de guerre: Commander Kaftar, which means dove 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 their soaring days: Commander Kaftar and her men had surrendered to them, a statement said.

“The officials of our invitation and advisory commission welcomed them,” the statement said.

Local officials in troubled Baghlan province, where she is based, and her relatives confirmed the commandant’s surrender, saying it was an act of survival. Her valley was so surrounded that other neighboring militias had already switched sides to the Taliban that she had no other choice.

Mohammad Hanif Kohgadai, a member of the Baghlan provincial council who represents Commander Kaftar’s district, said she had reached a deal through a Taliban commander related to her family.

“The Taliban spent the night with Commander Kaftar, they ate there,” said Khohgadai in an interview on Friday. “Today they left the house and took 13 weapons and other military equipment with them.”

One of Commander Kaftar’s sons downplayed the episode, saying it was more of a truce than a surrender.

“It’s just a rumor. My mother is sick, ”said Raz Mohammad, one of her three remaining sons. (Three others were killed in years of fighting.) “She did not join the Taliban. We are no longer fighting the Taliban. We have weapons to protect ourselves from our enemies. “

Commander Kaftar’s surrender is of little military benefit to the Taliban, but it is yet another propaganda victory against the warring Afghan government, suggesting that some insurgents switched sides in a bloody, stalled war. The Taliban have increasingly turned to those disappointed in the Afghan government as the country’s military fighting took place amid the ongoing American withdrawal.

For a group that held women to their homes when they were in power in the 1990s, a Taliban alliance with a female commander could prove difficult. The Taliban have not yet issued detailed positions in the ongoing peace talks on the role of women in a future government. But what makes Commander Kaftar’s move easier is that she commands hundreds of men in a deeply conservative and misogynist society.

The surrender presents a greater vulnerability to the Afghan government: its defense depends in part on thousands of unreliable militias that have been shown to have committed abuses and local feuds and have switched sides in the past.

President Ashraf Ghani has sent mixed signals about the militias over the years.

When Mr. Ghani took office in late 2014, he aggressively tried to dismantle the militia. When the militia commanders met the president’s ire, they simply refused to fight the Taliban and paved the way for the insurgents to march into the city of Kunduz.

In recent years, when the Afghan army and police were stretched against the Taliban’s offensives, Mr. Ghani has accepted the militias as a reality. In the summer, the Afghan President spoke publicly about investing more in some militias as a line of defense.

Commander Kaftar’s experience speaks to the intricate reality on which US-funded democracy was built – inherited from a previous invasion and years of anarchy and rule by warlords.

Her reputation began to grow when Soviet commandos who flooded her valley during an invasion from 1979 onwards were killed. Since then, she has not laid down arms and established a militia to protect her valley as her little kingdom. Even when the Taliban crossed most of Afghanistan in the 1990s, it repelled them.

She has often told how she mocked the Taliban commander for her province with a lose-lose offer: if she arrested him, she would take him around the city on a donkey and people laughed at him because he was defeated by a woman had been. What if he arrested her? The city would berate the Taliban commander for arresting a woman.

After the US invasion in 2001, the new Afghan government disarmed militias like theirs. They and many other militia commanders resisted. When asked if the government wanted to disarm you, she said, “When you come, you will see what I’m going to do to the government.”

Even in Kabul, she was celebrated as an anti-Taliban heroine and inspiration for women. The country’s former human rights leader attended a ceremony hosted by the Afghan Vice President.

“This war will not end in peace – only God or this beautiful Kalashinkov can solve it,” she once said in an interview, the weapon on her lap. “The Taliban are unable to change or reform.”

But even if media reports list 20 of their family members lost in the war with the Taliban, much of their struggle in recent years has been linked to spiraling family feuds.

Some of these disputes, including a fight with one of her sisters, dragged on for over two decades, with many deaths on each side. In another lengthy feud, she chased a relative out of the valley after death on both sides, only so that the man could return years later as the commander of the Taliban, to which she has now surrendered.

The news of Commander Kaftar’s fate raised questions as to whether it was the result of a ceasefire between two families or how it was publicly portrayed: the handing over of a militia commander to a Taliban leader. In large parts of Afghanistan, where the lines of war are becoming increasingly blurred, both are the same.

“Commander Pigeon was an old seedy warlord, a broken woman,” wrote writer Jennifer Percy in a 2014 profile in The New Republic. “Lonely, she survived from attention, from her ability to arouse fear through the power of her own myth. In Afghanistan, the ability to create a mythology is powerful, perhaps even more powerful than military capabilities. “

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