“She had suffered enough” – I feel for all the Afghan people, but especially for the women

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The women. We saw them but rarely engaged. With few exceptions, their burkas enveloped them from head to toe. I knew the abayas from the Middle East. I knew that some cultures or religions required women to be covered in black cloth except for their eyes. But in Afghanistan, when I was there in 2004, their burqas had blue mesh that covered women’s eyes.

This piqued my curiosity. Sometimes I could get permission to step out of the perimeter. When I could follow a military police mission or a supply run to Kabul, I would take pictures from afar, admiring the luminous pop of burqa blue against the austere Afghan landscape.

The civil affairs team in Asadabad distributes cash to Afghan women to make handicrafts to sell to help support their families. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Little)

While in Kabul, I found a brochure advertising Kabul dolls. They were beautiful dolls dressed in intricate costumes representing different Afghan ethnic groups. Cloth dolls even had individual fingers and toes. I was so impressed with the artistry that I contacted the company.

I was surprised when they asked me to help sell them at Bagram Airbase. A man may have run the Kabul doll business, but the company was founded to help women, many of whom were war widows with no other way of earning a living.

Several soldiers from my unit were allowed to visit a town bordering Bagram on Christmas Day. We went into town wanting to have something to do for the holidays besides dining at the Christmas mess, drinking with the Czech soldiers, or sitting in our tents. One of the female soldiers had ordered jackets and other small gifts.

The villagers received us politely but with some perplexity. I’m sure they had heard of Christmas, but to them it was just another day. But the women — there was no burqa in sight.

Elaine Little's team delivers gifts to local Afghan women at Christmas in 2004.
Elaine Little’s team donates gifts to local Afghan women at Christmas in 2004. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Little)

During the festivities, they invited me and two other female soldiers to the women’s quarters of one of the residences. We took off our shoes and marveled at the honor of being allowed into this private space. We do not linger, well aware that our presence can be considered an intrusion.

I worked as an interrogator in Afghanistan. I spent 12 hours a day interrogating men detained at Bagram Detention Center. Then one day, I interrogated the only female prisoner in Bagram. As far as I know, there were no female prisoners.

At first, there was a flurry of outside interest in the prisoners, and the US government made an intense effort to exploit the intelligence. But often no information was provided and they maintained their innocence. When this happened, it sometimes took months before the prisoner was deemed fit for release. Some were terrorists, of course. But many had been picked up in sweeps where quantity rather than quality seemed to be the rule.

Examples of Kabul dolls sold in stores at US bases in Afghanistan.
Examples of Kabul dolls sold in stores at US bases in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Little)

The exit interview was superficial. We sat in a small booth with a glass window and talked. She, the only female detainee at Bagram, sat in front of me, chained and dressed in a baggy orange jumpsuit and oversized black tennis shoes, while a bored deputy stood guard. The middle-aged woman sitting in front of me didn’t strike me as an Afghan Mata Hari. She was open and talkative, candid. She offered a few words of English. I wasn’t a psychiatrist, but she seemed to have some mental health issues that made her feel disconnected from reality. Intelligence gathering depended on detecting irregularities.

She didn’t seem any more concerned about having been in a detention center for over a year than if she had been stuck in a traffic jam. She had lost her figure since she was in prison, she said. She didn’t mention her family or her missing home, which made me wonder if her unconventional behavior caused her family to abandon her: walking around without a male escort, talking to American soldiers.

I tried to make it a festive event. An interpreter translated while she was eating the cookies and not drinking the crappy tea. She accepted the food I brought – Afghan food from an officer’s leaving party, so basically leftovers.

The tea was a disaster. I had misjudged the ratio of tea leaves to liquid. I used to soak Lipton bags in hot water. The American way. Here, making tea was an art. She winced after taking a sip. We switched to bottled water.

She had suffered enough.

The verdict? Not a terrorist. Just a “high value” lens that our government had seen fit to keep for over 400 days. Finally, she was released. However, with no information about where she came from, only where she was arrested, where and what was she going back to?

When the command sent me to Asadabad, I was glad to be away from the mast. The post was in the province of Kunar, in the Hindu Kush mountains. The hazy blue of the surrounding peaks, clear air and relative calm were a welcome respite from the bustle of Bagram.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team seemed to prioritize local women’s issues. The first event I attended was a women’s shura – a meeting – where we were presented with white scarves to wear instead of our Kevlars.

At a ceremony on International Women’s Day, we were honored as local service members helping the community. But we hoped that the focus would remain on Afghan women. They are the ones who have taken the most risks by speaking out and advocating for women’s equality. We were just doing our job.

In Asadabad, the PRT distributed about $50 to each of the women in the community to help them buy supplies to make handicrafts that could earn money for their families. Many of these women were skilled in embroidery and needlework. They had to come in person to collect the money.

Inevitably, women tried to give us gifts at the end of each event. We discouraged gifts because the money given by Americans was supposed to be used to improve the community. But it was considered rude to reject gifts.

Two girls Elaine Little met while hiking in the mountains in Afghanistan.
Two girls Elaine Little met while hiking in the mountains surrounded by her base in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Elaine Little)

As with any project designed to win hearts and minds, I can’t deny that the intent of the money was to curry favor and give the community a good impression of Americans. Still, some Afghans seemed to feel genuine goodwill toward the Americans. But not all of them: an IED exploding nearby, captured insurgents or rocket attacks on the forward operating base could bring us back to reality.

Before leaving the EPR, a local woman honored us with lunch at her home. We enjoyed the delicious food and she made a point of inviting the female team members to the women’s quarters afterwards.

I felt more comfortable in Asadabad than in Bagram. We could walk in the mountains that fell inside the base, where we often encountered locals, mainly children. Once I met two charming young girls whom I took for sisters. They reminded me of my own two daughters, whom I hadn’t seen in months. I still have the photo I took. I wanted to stay, but it didn’t depend on me. Soon I returned to Bagram and a few months later was redeployed to the United States.

I will never forget the women I met in Afghanistan: a local leader, a suspected terrorist unjustly imprisoned, the Afghan girls in my picture, villagers on Christmas Day. I feel for all the Afghan people. But I feel particularly concerned about women. Of course, my concern is specious. It’s a convenient way to feel like a good person without doing anything. I am free to disagree with what is happening in Afghanistan from the comfort of my living room. I think if it were up to me, things would be different. But they wouldn’t.

When it comes to making statements about the place of women in this new version of Afghanistan, the Taliban resort to vague or evasive statements. What do we do with women? It’s a matter they can’t settle. But with what we’ve seen so far, we know that they perceive women who think for themselves and have financial autonomy as a threat. We hear them say that girls will not necessarily be banned from going to school. But many boys’ schools have reopened since the Taliban took over. Most girls’ schools remain empty.

As soldiers, we go where we are told. Understanding the mission is not a prerequisite and questioning it is discouraged. But for me, at least, my intention was to do my best within the framework of the military rules that I was obliged to follow. I read articles and books trying to piece together the history of a part of the world that was never mentioned in any of my high school history lessons.

When I left, I brought home good memories, dolls and rugs. That was it. I wish I could have done better. I wish we could have done better.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization that educates the public about military service. Subscribe to their newsletter

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