A woman in training to become a police officer with a PKM machine gun at a shooting range in Kabul Image Credit: NYT

Two dozen Afghan women in their early 20s, dressed in camouflage uniforms, trudge through prickly thistle plants under a nearly full moon. No one dares speak, the silence broken only by too-big army-issued boots crunching to a chorus of stray-dog howls and midsummer cricket chirps. It’s one of the first times these women, all seniors at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul, have taken part in a nighttime exercise. Normally they would be tucked away in their dorm — its hallways plastered with posters of Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart and Col Latifa Nabizada, Afghanistan’s first female helicopter pilot — surrounded by barbed wire.

Female cadets must adhere to a strict 9pm curfew. But on this warm night, the women smile in the darkness, leaping over ravines and clambering up hills of dirt, spreading out into formation with their rifles in tow. Off in the distance is a flurry of commotion — the pop pop pop of blank rounds fired by their male counterparts; their flares pierce the night sky and set the dry grass ablaze. (The female cadets’ Afghan superiors have not yet allowed them to fire blank rounds or flares as part of a nighttime attack drill; so far, they’ve only had limited daytime firearms training.)

Led by a female sergeant known to the women as Sgt Hanifa, the group is flanked by US and British advisers who advocate drills like this while trying to navigate cultural norms that dictate how Afghan women must act and how they are viewed. In this case, in a bid to recruit more women, academy leadership has assured parents that female cadets won’t be out unsupervised at night, for their own protection.

“I have to do a head count, make sure we have all the lambs,” said Major Alli Shields of the British army, using the nickname given to the women by Afghan male staff. “Or else this will be the first and last exercise.”

Next to her stands Lt. Cmdr. Rebekah Gerber of the US Navy, a senior gender adviser for the Afghan Ministry of Defence, who watches the drill with her hands on her hips, mentally taking notes. She’s one of a dozen advisers from Nato countries working with the Afghan government to integrate and support both men and women across the security sector. The lofty end goal: gender equality. A self-described fiery redhead pushing what she jokingly calls a “ginger gender agenda,” Gerber comes bearing a bold message for the Afghans and her coalition colleagues: “Get on board or get out — it’s happening.”

It’s a job Gerber doesn’t take lightly. Deployed halfway across the globe from her four daughters — her second overseas deployment, after serving on a Navy ship in the Arabian Gulf — she’s driven by thoughts of her girls back home “and for the women to come.”

Since Nato formally ended its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, drawing down a huge deployment of international forces, the US and its allies have turned their attention to training, advising and assisting Afghan armed forces, trying to carve out a reality in which Afghanistan is able to defend and secure its own country without billions of dollars in foreign funding and assistance. Within that complex and intensely scrutinised mission is another, perhaps even more difficult, one: bolster the ranks of Afghan women in security forces, train them, promote them and keep them alive.

Advisers like Gerber are tasked with leading that charge, part of a Nato policy born in the wake of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, which stresses the importance of women’s involvement in global peace and security. Since then, a growing body of evidence has found that when women play a role in the security sector, take part in peace negotiations and are involved in rebuilding after war, women feel more comfortable reporting sexual violence and nations enjoy a more stable and lasting peace.

To enact the resolution and appease international donors eager to support women’s rights, Afghanistan, a UN member state, adopted an internationally funded national action plan that details everything from engaging men in addressing violence against women to including women at decision-making levels nationally, regionally and locally.

But 17 years into America’s longest war, in which the argument for protecting and “saving” Afghan women has long shaped the rhetoric to invade and maintain troop presence, their advancement in the security sector is still largely at odds with cultural perceptions of women’s place in society. Progress, as defined by the US and Nato leadership, has been painfully slow, and there’s concern that programs to recruit and train women have only put them in more danger.

Despite billions of US tax dollars spent on bolstering Afghan troops and paying their salaries — nearly $160 million budgeted in the past three years alone to support female forces — Afghanistan has never come close to its set recruitment bench marks for women. Those involved in and familiar with Nato gender efforts say it could take generations before real, lasting progress is made for Afghan women in uniform.

Before the Taliban overran war-torn Kabul in 1996, cementing its control over most of the country, women had served in the security forces for decades, though in limited capacities and often facing great backlash. (Colonel Latifa Nabizada and her sister braved male colleagues’ pelting them with rocks after enrolling in military flight school in 1989 to become helicopter pilots, the first Afghan women ever to do so in 1991.) Under the Taliban, though, Afghan women found themselves stripped of their rights and confined to their homes, their ambitions tabled — or driven underground. Mothers risked everything, even their lives, to educate their daughters in secret.

Women who dare speak up — about anything — almost instantly find themselves a target. In 2015, a 27-year-old woman named Farkhunda Malikzada confronted a group of men who were reportedly trafficking amulets and Viagra at a shrine in central Kabul. The men responded by falsely accusing her of burning a Quran, which incited a mob to furiously beat her in broad daylight and light her bloodied body on fire, shouting that the Americans had sent her. Police officers nearby — including a female officer named Shamila, who risked her own life by screaming at the men to back off — weren’t able to save her. She died of her injuries.

Even joining the security forces is today considered a dangerous act, one that challenges the very fabric of Afghan culture and notions of how women should live their lives. In this male-dominated environment, Afghan women in uniform are often met with disdain. The community views them as “whores,” according to an Afghan woman in the special forces who serves alongside men and is tasked with searching women and children during raids. She is the sole provider for her family of seven. Many women who sign up to join the security forces, particularly the police, do so for financial reasons. Many are widows or women without a male guardian to support them and, as a result, already face ostracization in their communities. It’s not just a job; it’s a last resort for survival.

Previously, the effort to recruit women was seen as a numbers game, with the Afghan Ministry of Defence pushing for bigger recruitment numbers in the face of intense international pressure. Resolute Support, the Nato-led “train, advise and assist” mission in Afghanistan, calculates that there are 3,231 women in the Afghan National Police, 1,312 women in the Afghan National Army, which includes the air force, and 122 women in the Afghan Special Security Forces, making up, in aggregate, roughly 1.4 per cent of Afghan security forces. All but 75 of them are based in Kabul. Those numbers are estimates, said Resolute Support, because Nato and Afghan records detailing force strength often do not match.

To meet the new bench marks, Resolute Support will have to work with the Afghan government to recode existing male-only positions to be gender-neutral and increase the number of women-only positions so that women are able, and encouraged, to apply for jobs ranging from intelligence to mechanics. Previously, pilot positions to fly the ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle — a small, low-altitude surveillance drone — were closed to women. Those positions will be recoded so women can fill them, a bid to recruit more women into intelligence.

Once the positions are recoded and Nato has a better idea of the positions available to women, and where they’re needed, Gerber said there will be a push to recruit women in schools, computer firms, libraries and engineering firms. “We’re focused on quality, not quantity,” Gerber said. “We want educated women. They have to be smarter and stronger than the men.”

That’s a steep task in a country where an estimated 80 per cent of Afghan women are illiterate. And many women like Shamila can read but do not have a high school education. Language and literacy courses can help with recruitment in areas like Kandahar and Helmand, where there’s a critical need for women in security forces but a shortage of candidates with the requisite language or professional skills.

“Everything is gradual,” Gerber said. “But honestly, we have to steer the ship slowly. Making too many sudden changes will cause the ship to list and maybe even sink.”

Nato and the Afghan government have tried a variety of ways to recruit women, with limited success — from recruitment posters to handpicking promising women to offering incentive pay. But incentive pay has also led to resentment and harassment by male colleagues because women end up making more money than the men. Such incentives run the risk of causing more harm to the very women they’re meant to support, said Wazhma Frogh, a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and founder of the Kabul-based Women & Peace Studies Organization.

There are not even sexual harassment and assault policies in place to protect women employed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior from the many types of threats they face. It’s a major, though long delayed, goal of Resolute Support to help draft and promote better policies, as well as ways in which men and women can report sexual harassment and assault.

After missing a deadline in March to deliver the new policies, Resolute Support held a round-table discussion in June with Nato advisers and representatives from the Afghan ministries of Defense and Interior. The meeting started off tense, with one gray-haired Afghan policy adviser in fatigues proclaiming that there was no need for change and that “people already know where to report sexual harassment.” Gerber’s eyes widened.

“We need to shake the tree,” said Marghaly Faqirzai Ghaznavi, an Afghan Ministry of Interior adviser on human rights, women and children’s affairs, and the only Afghan woman who was in the room. The meeting ended with a promise: Representatives from the ministries would take the Nato-drafted policy into consideration. Months later, no policy has been formalised. US advisers are still hopeful that they can firm something up in the coming months.

“Our job is not to hand them an international community-accepted policy or a plan easy for us to implement,” said Gerber. “We want them to do it themselves.”

While they wait on their government to take action, Afghan women continue to face great risks. Death threats drove Latifa Nabizada, the pioneering helicopter pilot, to leave Afghanistan. She’s now living in Austria, where she and her daughter have been granted asylum. In May, the US granted asylum to Niloofar Rahmani, 26, Afghanistan’s widely celebrated and US-trained first female fixed-wing pilot. She became an icon for women after graduating from pilot school in 2013, and also a target, she said. Rahmani’s lawyer insists her life would be at “grave risk” if she were made to return.

There are critics — not just the Taliban — who say that the US has no place dictating how Afghanistan should run its country. And there are others who say that US and international funding and pressure are essential to push forward gender efforts, but that such efforts have been marked by flawed execution and limited results.

Women across the security sector are “what Afghanistan needs,” said Frogh of the High Peace Council. They’re essential to everything from responding to domestic violence cases to searching the homes and bodies of suspected militants when women are involved — something that is culturally unacceptable for men to do. But there’s a lack of political will, she warned. “If (Afghanistan) wants it or not — that’s a different thing.”

One thing is certain, she said: The current strategy is simply not working. There’s an inherent power difference between foreign troops — often stationed in Afghanistan for a year or less before rotating out — and their Afghan counterparts. “You cannot mentor people with a language and attitude you don’t understand,” Frogh said.

–This article is a partnership between The Fuller Project for International Reporting and The New York Times Magazine.