These Afghan Women Hunted The Taliban. Now They’re Your Neighbors.

Left: Mahtab at target practice in Afghanistan; Middle: Nafisa in fatigues Right: Nahid stops for lunch break at Chick-Fil-A.

IIn the cramped kitchen of a Chick-fil-A in Pittsburgh, out of the customers’ line of sight, there is a slight 26-year-old woman in a headscarf making chicken sandwiches. She looks up every few seconds to check the drive-thru screen. It beeps insistently, like a hospital heartbeat monitor, detailing each new custom order for her to assemble: no cheese, yes bacon, no tomato. She folds each leaf of lettuce so it tucks underneath the bun, just so. Her co-workers know her as a quiet employee with limited English who learns fast. It feels impossible to explain, almost like it never happened.

About this story: To protect the identities of some of the subjects, we have changed names or omitted last names where necessary, as noted in the text. We have also blurred some faces in photographs to protect the identity of those who are still in sensitive roles in the U.S. military or those who fear reprisals from the Taliban.

A year ago, Nahid was running off of U.S. military Chinook helicopters into remote compounds in the middle of the night, carrying an M4 assault rifle and scanning the horizon through the green haze of night vision, searching for Taliban and ISIS targets. She conducted some 50 midnight raids, alongside Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Army Rangers. One night, a grenade thrown out of a second-floor window killed three male Afghan soldiers standing nearby. She stood guard over an injured American soldier, firing into the darkness to ward off further attacks, praying for his survival, until air support arrived.

And then, six months ago, she boarded a C-17 military cargo plane out of Kabul, sitting on the floor with hundreds of her countrymen, heading toward an American life she hadn’t really asked for, but was thankful to get.

For six years, Nahid was known as a courageous and highly effective soldier, part of a covert unit of female Afghan soldiers created and trained by U.S. Special Operations. In a country where most women did not leave home without a male escort, her unit, the Female Tactical Platoon, worked alongside elite strike forces, doing the work that male soldiers could not do in a Muslim country: searching and questioning women and children on high-risk nighttime missions. From the time the Platoon was set up in 2011 to the fall of Kabul in 2021, the women conducted some two thousand missions.

And now she is here. One of 39 members of the Female Tactical Platoon to be evacuated to the United States in the chaos that followed the fall of Kabul in August.

The Platoon members spent the fall in pop-up refugee camps on military bases. But now, all these women and 85 of their family members are officially “resettled”: which is to say, they are scattered across 26 cities, from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Anchorage, Alaska, studying English, looking for work and trying to reconcile their past with their present.

The fate of these unusual women is of outsized importance to their American military counterparts — and to the Taliban. “They are an affront to everything the Taliban stands for,” a Green Beret officer who served alongside four Female Tactical Platoon members in Afghanistan told me. “They were one of the few groups who were kill-on-sight for the Taliban. If they were captured, they would be killed.”

For the past several months, I’ve been following members of the Platoon, chronicling their new lives in America and their experiences in Afghanistan, based on hours of interviews with half a dozen Platoon members and 10 current and former U.S. servicemembers who trained and fought beside them.

Nahid in the kitchen of a Pittsburgh Chick-Fil-A.

This may sound, at first, like one of the few happy endings to come out of the fall of Kabul last summer. And it is. These 39 women are safe, sitting in sleepy suburban apartments practicing their English vocabulary words, while millions of their fellow Afghans are suffering. But for the Platoon members, it does not feel like the end of anything. They are devastated to have left their country in the hands of the enemy they spent years fighting, desperately worried about colleagues and loved ones they left behind and anxious about their immigration status, which remains in limbo.

In talking to them, it is clear that, one way or another, they are not done fighting. About half say they would like to join the U.S. military, if they can find a way to earn green cards one day. Others dream of returning to their country to help the women of Afghanistan. At the moment, one woman is taking three English classes simultaneously in Pennsylvania. Five are enrolled in English classes at Virginia Tech. Another is doing mixed martial arts training in Washington state. Four are working at Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country. One is working as a gardener on a horse ranch in New Mexico. Another is at a day care center in Utah. All are trying — and sometimes failing — to find a new purpose in life that can begin to match their old one.

I met with Nahid in Pittsburgh on a February morning before her shift at Chick-fil-A. Her new home is well-appointed with heavy, circa 1980s furniture donated by the people of Pittsburgh. A large Afghan flag sent to her by her U.S. military veteran friends hangs on one wall, right above an artificial white Christmas tree, donated by a local volunteer. Nahid hadn’t seen a good reason to take it down.

Top: In her apartment in Pittsburgh, Nahid talks about her experience as a Platoon member in Afghanistan. Left: Nahid shares a photograph of a medal she earned in Afghanistan. Right: Nahid and her sister pray in a bedroom of their home in Pittsburgh, before going to work at Chick-Fil-A.

Wearing a blue leopard-print headscarf and flip flops, Nahid sipped her tea and explained why she joined the Platoon. “When I was a girl, I was always told that girls and women cannot join the military,” she said. “And I was always annoyed by that. So I wanted to be the first to do those things.” (Nahid is not her real name. POLITICO agreed not to use her name because she fears reprisals from the Taliban.)

Her father never learned how to read or write; her mother gave birth to Nahid when she was 16. But all her life, her parents had told her that she could do big things. Like most of the Platoon members, Nahid and her family are Hazaras, a predominantly Shiite minority ethnic population that has been persecuted for years by the Taliban, who are mostly Sunnis from the Pashtun majority. “Other people told my father that girls should not go to school, and they made fun of my parents,” Nahid said. “And my parents never gave in.” Other girls her age stayed home and wove carpets, while she went to high school and then university. When she was 20, she saw a recruiting ad on TV, calling for women to join the military. Her father signed the permission slip.

Nahid’s father was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. The family spent all of their savings getting him treatment in Pakistan, but he died soon afterward. She talks about him haltingly, still grieving the loss of the man who believed she could do anything, despite everything.

But whenever the conversation drifted back to her work with the Female Tactical Platoon, her eyes lit up. She talked about the intense workouts they did each day and about the time she helped rescue a group of six women and 13 children who had been taken captive by the Taliban. She earned a medal for that mission. It’s back in Afghanistan, along with everything else, she said, taking out her phone to show me a picture of the medal.

“What were you best at in your job?” I asked her. “Marksmanship? Physical fitness? Questioning?”

“Everything,” she said smiling. “I was good at everything.”

Nahid with Julia Pleasants, her American military counterpart, after a snowstorm in Bagram Afghanistan.

Cultural Support Team member Julia Pleasants and her FTP counterpart after a snowstorm in Bagram Afghanistan.

Nahid arriving for her shift at Chick-Fil-A.

Nahid leaving her job at Chick-Fil-A for the evening.

‘It was like being in love’

When U.S. Army Major Laura Peters was told about the creation of a new and unusual unit of Afghan soldiers a decade ago, she was highly skeptical. It seemed dangerous at best, doomed at worst. Train Afghan women as elite fighters and send them into the worst parts of Taliban-held Afghanistan? “If I am being honest, I wasn’t sure it would work.” At the time, Peters, who is no longer in the military, was herself part of a newly formed unit called the Cultural Support Team — highly trained American women who were embedded with U.S. Special Operations forces on their missions to interact with women and children. That* *concept was controversial enough. Certain male American soldiers distrusted the unit and resented that women were being given precious seats on helicopters into combat zones.

“We had to prove ourselves,” Peters said. “And it was a really challenging mission.” Now they were going to do the same thing with Afghan women? “It seemed crazy. How would you possibly recruit them?” Afghan women are traditionally not supposed to work — or be out of the house at night. In Afghan culture, women do not, as a rule, go running or lift weights. “They couldn’t do one single sit-up,” another American officer who trained the recruits told me. But the Platoon members had to be fit enough to keep up with the male commandos on raids, which could mean sprinting out of a helicopter under fire or walking up a mountain wearing body armor.

Anytime they were off base, the women had to wear civilian clothing and operate undercover, lying to their neighbors about where they were going each day. If they were stopped at a Taliban checkpoint, they had to make up a story to explain their movements and be ready to swear on the Quran that they were telling the truth. On base, the women needed their own spaces, separate from men, to work out, train, eat and pray. It was, logistically, a mess.

At the recruiting sessions, a hundred women would show up and, after hearing the job requirements, only 10 would return. The only reason Peters and her colleagues kept trying was because they understood how valuable these women could be, in theory. In any tribal community, women know where the men are, where the weapons are and who hid a phone in the floorboards. Male soldiers couldn’t talk to or search these women (local Afghan men might punish or even kill the woman who’d been interviewed, along with her children, and hatred for the U.S. military would spike in the area), which is why Peters and her colleagues on the Cultural Support Team had been brought in. But Americans were planning to withdraw from Afghanistan one day, so they wanted to create a parallel Afghan unit. Plus, American women might miss subtle cues in a foreign culture, and they had to talk to Afghan women through an interpreter, which made interactions stilted. So far, the American women had still made extraordinary finds — helping to identify and locate high-value targets and bomb-making materials, among other things. Imagine what Afghan* *women could find out.

Female U.S. Army officers were charged with helping select and train the female Platoon members in Afghanistan. The women grew close over the course of their deployments, bonding over chai tea, Disney movies and their shared belief that they were helping to protect women and children from the Taliban. “It’s a special kind of dedication,” said Sarah Scully, a U.S. Army Company Commander who worked alongside the Platoon members in 2020. “I don’t think there’s any other story like it in the military.” Top: Platoon members and their U.S. counterparts outside their training compound after training session in 2017. The women did weekly hikes up to 12 miles in full battle gear across mountainous terrain. Left: Platoon members and their American counterparts on the obstacle course summer of 2017. Right: Female U.S. and Afghan soldiers in the classroom.

Peters and her team ended up selecting a dozen recruits, picking women who could get permission from their families to join, who passed psychological and character screenings (which assessed, among other things, if they were willing and able to maintain a cover story with friends and neighbors) and who seemed like they could learn to do a push up. The American women brought them to Camp Scorpion, just outside of Kabul, and began teaching them everything they knew. They taught them to shoot and to lift weights. (After one lesson on how to do a burpee, an Afghan woman asked the blazingly obvious question: “Why?”) Then they moved on to other skillsets: how to search a room, how to question a suspected terrorist, how to run in boots while wearing night-vision goggles.

The first surprise, for the Americans, was the relentlessness of the new recruits. “None of these females wanted to quit, which was amazing,” Peters said. The Afghan women had trouble finding reliable transportation to the job, and some of them were threatened by relatives for doing this work. For the first few months, the women did not even consistently get paid — due to bureaucratic problems within the Afghan government. And still, “they just kept coming back for more.”

The other surprise was the joy. The women had to do weekly 12-mile walks, carrying 35 pounds of gear in scorching heat, all while wearing hijabs and long-sleeved shirts and pants. But even then, there was this current of delight, just under the surface. “Oh my gosh, there was so much giggling and laughter,” Peters said. The women were learning to kick down doors and fast-rope out of a helicopter, wielding a kind of power that had been, until then, unimaginable. “This is just my opinion, but a lot of their lives they’d been taught to be silent,” Peters said, “and I think, in a setting where they were together and encouraged to be a badass, it just brought up so much glee, to be perfectly blunt.”

One of the earliest recruits was a woman named Mahtab, who had worked as a calligraphy teacher before joining the military. Mahtab (which is also not her real name) has pronounced cheek bones, long straight black hair and a small frame, like all the Platoon members. But she is also older and more serious, unafraid to look you in the eye and tell it like it is. As a soldier, she attended college at night, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science. She rose up through the ranks, becoming the Platoon’s commander for seven years.

Mahtab was recently resettled in the D.C.-area, and in January, I met her at Lapis, an Afghan restaurant in the city, along with Ellie, a U.S. army captain and one of the servicemembers most involved in helping the Platoon members resettle. (POLITICO agreed not to disclose Ellie’s real name because she remains on active duty and is not authorized to speak on the record.) When Mahtab thinks back to those early days, she remembers how hard and how thrilling it was, all at once. Each day was different from the one before, she said, barely touching her food. “On missions, you couldn’t predict what would happen next,” she said. “It was like being in love.”

Mahtab, shown here during target practice in Afghanistan, was the Platoon’s commander for seven years. “I’ve been in awe of her since I first met her,” said a U.S. Army officer who worked alongside her. “Her knowledge, her experience, how she presents herself.”

Mahtab target practicing in Afghanistan

Mahtab puts her groceries away

After grocery shopping, Mahtab puts her purchases away. Mahtab now lives in a small apartment outside of Washington, D.C.

Years later, once the initial excitement wore off, she stayed for another reason. “There was a sense of purpose,” she told me. “We were trying to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a terrorist haven. We weren’t just serving our country; we were serving the world.”

So that is what she began to tell other Afghan women, when she held recruiting sessions. “I always said, ‘This is war. You may die. You may lose your arm or your leg. But you are really serving your country — not just with your body but with your soul, your heart, everything.’”

One night, early in her career, Mahtab searched the wife of a Taliban leader who had just been captured by a strike force of Green Berets. Afterward, the woman stared stonily at her. “Today you come to my house,” she said. “Tomorrow, I will come to your house.” The encounter haunted Mahtab for weeks. “It was the first time it had occurred to me that the Taliban could come back to power,” she said. But her colleagues told her not to worry. The Taliban was weak, and the Americans were here. Eventually, she stopped thinking about it so much. Instead, she focused on the mission, trying to build a better future for the country.

Mahtab remembers one raid in Helmand Province, when a group of about 75 Army Rangers and Afghan special operators were searching for a suspected Taliban commander. The first house they went to, around midnight, turned out to be the wrong one, based on bad intelligence. Mahtab went inside the courtyard to question the family and found herself being stared at by a girl with big round eyes.

“Are you a female?” the girl asked when she heard Mahtab’s voice, her eyes moving from Mahtab’s gun to her night-vision goggles to her headscarf, sticking out underneath her helmet.

“Yes,” Mahtab answered.

“Can you give me something? To keep?”

Mahtab understood that she was, to this girl, a unicorn, and the girl wanted proof that unicorns exist. She checked her pockets. She had a pen and some peanuts, nothing special, but she handed them over.

“Here, eat these peanuts,” she told the girl.

“I will never eat them,” the girl vowed. “I will keep them all my life.”

The girl’s name was Anargul, which means pomegranate-girl in Dari. Later that night, still struggling to identify the target, Mahtab returned to the house and called for Anargul. She and her family helped Mahtab and the commandos figure out where the Taliban suspect could be found.

Everyday, Mahtab receives desperate messages from male commandos left behind in Afghanistan. “If the Taliban doesn’t kill them, they will die of starvation,” she said. Top: Mahtab sits at the dining room table in her one-bedroom apartment in Maryland. Left: Mahtab checks her mail after returning from a shopping trip. One of the relatives she lives with is in the foreground. She is drinking tea from Afghanistan. Right: Mahtab copies Afghan poems in a journal given to her by one of her American military counterparts. She said this helps her deal with the sadness of being isolated from her homeland.

‘If I die tonight, I die pretty’

Soon, the American women noticed, male commandos were not just being ordered to bring Platoon members on missions — they were actively requesting their assistance. “We spoke the same language and understood the culture,” explains Mahtab. “When I searched a female, I’d say, ‘I am Muslim, you are Muslim. I am Afghan, you are Afghan. I am a woman, you are a woman.’” The Americans had money, training and gear, but there is no substitute for that kind of connection.

The Platoon remained largely under the radar, even within the U.S. military. When I asked U.S. Special Operations Command for comment on the Platoon, the public affairs officer told me he had never heard of it — and neither had his counterparts at U.S. Central Command. The only information the Special Operations historian had on the program was classified. But, in the field, news of the Platoon’s abilities reached the highest levels. Retired Gen. Joseph Votel, former Commander of U.S. Central Command, told me the women were of “immense value” to forces on the ground. “They opened up the 50 percent of the population that our male-dominated units could not connect with,” said Votel, now a Middle East Institute distinguished senior fellow. At one point, he visited one of their training sessions and was struck by how small and young the Afghan women seemed compared to their American counterparts. “Yet they possessed great desire and a high level of patriotism. [It was] very inspirational.”

Mahtab and a relative shop
Mahtab and a relative shop
Mahtab and a relative shop

Mahtab and a relative shop for a new living room rug at a Maryland store that sells Afghan home goods, clothing and food, near their home.

Over time, the American female soldiers became very close to Mahtab and all of the Afghan Platoon members. Between missions, they would hang out in each other’s rooms on base, dancing, drinking chai and doing henna tattoos. For all of their differences (and there were many), they were all positive deviants of a sort — women working in a hypermasculine profession, convinced they were making the world safer for other women. “It’s a special kind of dedication,” said Sarah Scully, a former Cultural Support Team member and current company commander who worked with Mahtab and Nahid in 2020. “I don’t think there’s any other story like it in the military.”

FTP soldiers on a rock formation in Afghanistan

Platoon members with their American counterparts during a deployment in Northern Afghanistan.

The Platoon members learned a lot from their female U.S. counterparts, but certain things, they did their own way. Many of the Afghan women would show up for work wearing make-up, jewelry and heels, for example. It didn’t matter that they were preparing to go on a night raid in the mountains. The bemused American women started to refer to this as “Afghan style.”

One bitterly cold night, a Platoon member came to a mission wearing a long fur coat, with the hood up over her helmet and night-vision goggles. “I gave her a hard time,” an American female officer told me. “I said, ‘This is a joke, right? You’re not really wearing that, are you?’”

“If I die tonight, I die pretty,” the woman replied.

FTPs and a CST during a deployment in Northern Afghanistan.
FTPs and a CST during a deployment in Northern Afghanistan.
FTPs and a CST during a deployment in Northern Afghanistan.

Platoon members with their American counterparts during a deployment in Northern Afghanistan.

At least once, Ellie said, the male Afghan commandos asked the female Platoon members if they would please dress more plainly — more like the American women. It became a running joke between both groups of women. But Afghan style prevailed. “It was almost an act of protest — to be feminine — for some women,” Mahtab said. “To say, ‘This is who I am.’”

One of the younger Platoon members, recruited by Mahtab, was a woman named Nafisa who has a heart-shaped face and unfailingly wears lipstick, eye shadow and mascara. She has a smile that crinkles up her nose and spreads over her whole face. Mahtab remembers her for two reasons: She was an excellent shot, and she was always on time. “I always told the other girls, ‘Look at Nafisa! She’s never late!’”

Nafisa, whose last name POLITICO has agreed not to publish, joined in 2018, serving in one of the most violent phases of the war. Over the course of three years, she went on about 60 missions and fired her weapon on almost all of them, becoming known as something of a sharpshooter. She loved target practice, but her favorite training session was when she got to fire the machine guns. Talking to her, this is hard to imagine because Nafisa weighs 92 pounds and is just 5 feet, 2 inches tall. But the truth is, at age 25, she has more combat experience than the vast majority of American servicemen.

Naf and Sad, FTP soldiers together in Afghanistan.

Nafisa and a fellow Platoon member in Afghanistan. The women now live together in an Atlanta apartment as they rebuild their lives.

Sad, Naf and Rah pose for a picture together in Decatur, Ga.

Nafisa, center, with two other Platoon members in Atlanta.

On one particularly memorable mission, in June of 2019 in Mazar-e-Sharif, Nafisa and about 50 Army Rangers and Afghan commandos were ambushed three separate times, repeatedly coming under heavy fire from the Taliban over the course of 24 hours. Nafisa was shot but uninjured because of her body armor. (Over its decade-long existence, the Platoon did not lose anyone in combat, though two of the women were seriously injured.) Another time, she tackled a woman said to be wearing a suicide vest — which turned out to be lined with cash, not explosives. Once, she discovered a pistol hidden in the swaddling blanket of a baby.

One American woman, a West Point graduate, told me she’d signed up for the deployment in order to get combat experience. But she was, in the end, much more profoundly affected by her connections to the Platoon.

“How those women carried themselves and all the badass things they were able to accomplish — in a society that really doesn’t value them — it was humbling,” she said. (POLITICO granted her anonymity because she still works for the U.S. military and is not authorized to speak on the record.) “When I think of them, I just smile. I absolutely loved my deployment because of these women.”

As the years went by, each rotation of American women left, one by one. Their deployments ended after six months, in most cases. But the Afghan Platoon members carried on. “While the U.S. was there, supplying a lot of funding and training, that program was successful,” said Andrea Filozof, a U.S. Army Reserve Major who helped train the initial cohort of Platoon members. “My fear always was, when we do leave, are these women going to be safe?” Each time, when the Afghan and American women said their goodbyes, they assumed that no matter what happened, they would never see each other again.

Iphone and screen phone shots telling FTP’s where to go so that they could be evacuated from Afghanistan.
Iphone and screen phone shots telling FTP’s where to go so that they could be evacuated from Afghanistan.
Iphone and screen phone shots telling FTP’s where to go so that they could be evacuated from Afghanistan.

Screenshots of text messages from American servicewomen telling Platoon members where to go to be evacuated from Afghanistan.

‘Fight hard. … It’s the only way we can help you’

“The Taliban is here. You have to take off your uniform.” Nafisa heard what the male Afghan soldier told her on the morning of Aug. 15, 2021, but she did not react, not at first. She knew the Taliban was gaining ground across the country as the Americans pulled out, but she’d thought they would not take Kabul — not for months, if at all. How could this be happening? “It was a mental shock to me,” she said. Then she heard gunfire outside of her barracks, and she understood. Her life had changed in a permanent way.

She took off her uniform and put it in her locker. “I will never forget that moment,” she told me. She took a taxi home on eerily empty roads. For three days, she stayed in her home, terrified, waiting for the Taliban to come to her door. “I was going crazy,” she said. She burned her awards and any documents in English and deleted most of the apps on her phone.

Back in America, Ellie and other veterans had spent months helping the women apply for Special Immigrant Visas — a program created by Congress in 2009 to offer safe haven to Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government. But the Platoon members soon learned they may not qualify. The Platoon was created by the Americans but formally under the employment of the Afghan National Army, which meant the women did not have a letter from a U.S. employer, as required for the visa.

As the American exit from Afghanistan approached, the American women scrambled to help the Platoon members apply for other visas but got nowhere. Then, the week before Kabul fell, a beloved Platoon member named Mahjabin Hakimi was killed at home. The circumstances of her death remain unclear — but don’t appear to be directly related to her work. Still, Hakimi’s death was a gut punch to all the women, on both continents, and the Americans vowed to work harder, from afar, to protect the remaining Platoon members.

A few days after the Taliban swept into Kabul, the Platoon members finally decided to try their luck at Kabul International Airport. Nafisa, Nahid, Mahtab and most of the Platoon members were all there, amidst the throngs of Afghans trying to escape. Stripped of their weapons and their uniforms, they watched families get trampled and children scream in hunger, and they were unable to help in the ways they were trained to do. It was a terrible feeling, to be so powerless, so suddenly. More than being killed, they feared being captured by the Taliban. “There is no morality or ethics among the Taliban,” Nahid told me. “So being captured meant being tortured or worse. The worst things you can think of.”

For hours and, in some cases, days, Ellie and the other Americans bombarded the Platoon members on WhatsApp and Signal, trying to get the Afghan women close enough to the airport perimeter so that American soldiers they had connections with could pull them up over the fence. “Push faster please. Fight hard to get close. It’s the only way we can help you.” Back and forth the messages flew, changing from moment to moment, for hours. “Tell all the girls to get close.” Crying emoji. “To the tower.” Heart emoji. There were maps and photos and hand-drawn diagrams. “You need to get to the Swedish flag on the fence, by the gate.” Heart, heart, heart. “OK I try.”

Nafisa, the sharpshooter, was one of the last Platoon members to make it into the airport. An Army Ranger in contact with the American women knew a soldier on the ground who pulled her over the fence. Then the Americans worked through the State Department and a general on the ground to get the Platoon members cleared to get onto actual airplanes. When Nafisa finally boarded a C-17 military cargo plane out of Afghanistan, she had no idea where it was going. The plane was packed with people, all sitting on the floor. They ended up in Qatar. Two hours later, she got on another plane. This one went to Germany, where she stayed at Ramstein Air Base for seven days. Like the other evacuees, she had no say over where she went. She’d gone from elite soldier to refugee, literally overnight. From rescuer to rescued. Finally, she was flown to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where she stayed for three months, along with Mahtab and 13 other Platoon members.

Meanwhile, Ellie and a handful of other current and former servicewomen tried to track where each of the Platoon members had gone. “It was chaotic,” Ellie said. It was hard to find some of them and harder still to keep in regular contact. “It became clear we couldn’t give them the attention they needed on our own. They needed to know that someone was looking out for them over the long term.” So they launched a program called Sisters of Service and began recruiting one-on-one mentors for each Platoon member. The Sisters of Service sent care packages out to the military bases where the Platoon members were staying, full of warm jackets, running shoes and, naturally, makeup. The Afghan women sent back many selfies, accessorized with endless emoji. One Platoon member proudly sent a photo of the 3-inch wedge heels she’d worn to evacuate, Afghan style.

In January, Mahtab joined a sparsely attended protest against the Taliban in front of the White House

In January, Mahtab joined a sparsely attended protest against the Taliban in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes I wonder what it must feel like to be an American and not be always living in war,” she said.

‘‘I am safe. But it’s hard to accept’

The U.S. looks strangely familiar, Mahtab told me. Like it does in the movies. The buildings are tall and beautiful. The traffic is much better than in Afghanistan, and she is grateful to be safe. She is working remotely as an interpreter for an immigration law firm and living with her nieces in a modest apartment beside a freeway in Maryland.

But this time in her life, she said, is by far the hardest ordeal she has ever experienced. Even harder than war. “People clapped for us at the airport,” Mahtab told me. “I appreciate them. But my heart wasn’t there. My heart is with my people.”

Every day, she gets WhatsApp messages from the men she worked with in the Ktah Khas, Afghanistan’s elite special operations unit. They are trapped in a nightmare, begging her to help them evacuate, which she has no way of doing. “If the Taliban doesn’t kill them, they will die of starvation,” she told me. They do not qualify for Special Immigrant Visas, since they, too, worked for the Afghan military, not for the Americans. And yet, no matter what she tells them, many of them still hold out hope that the Americans will evacuate them one day.

When I visited Mahtab at her apartment in February, she told me about a male colleague who had been tortured and killed by the Taliban. She picked up her phone to show me a picture of his body, covered in burn marks, which had just been returned to his family. “The United States helped me to get out of the country. My question is, ‘What was the difference between me and a soldier who served side by side with me?’” The obvious answer is that she is a woman, and therefore especially endangered back home. But looking at the photo of her murdered colleague, the argument falls apart.

In February, Nafisa and a fellow Platoon member attended an art class at Refuge Coffee, a business created to employ and support refugees in Atlanta. Nafisa’s goal is to get a Green Card so she can join the U.S. military one day. Top: Nafisa poses for a portrait at Refuge Coffee. Left: Nafisa and two other Platoon members have lunch at a local pizza place following their English class. Right: Nafisa draws a picture of a bird during the art class.

Anyone fleeing war or famine endures an impossible kind of psychological splitting: You must start a new life here while everything you know and love is over there. You’re neither here nor there. “Sometimes I feel like it might be easier if I were there,” Mahtab told me. “Now, I am safe. But it’s hard to accept.”

Recently, to keep herself sane, Mahtab vowed to memorize a poem and make a drawing each week. Someone sent her a video of an Afghan woman in traditional dress dancing, whirling round and round, dancing in spite of everything. She drew the woman dancing in front of an Afghan flag, and she put it up on her bookshelf, next to her photos of the Platoon members.

In November, at the Halifax International Security Forum, Cindy McCain gave the John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service to the Platoon members. “He would be honored,” McCain said of her husband, “that the fourth recipient of this award … are the brave freedom fighters, the Afghan Female Tactical Platoon.” Mahtab accepted the award, by video, on behalf of all the Platoon members. “If you want to help Afghanistan, please stand up for the education of women, for the right of women to work, for women to have a voice,” she said. “Though our platoon has been disbanded, our mission is not over yet.”

In March, the Taliban reneged on its earlier promises to let girls stay in school and began shuttering schools for girls above 6th grade. The Taliban has also banned women from traveling more than 45 miles from home without a close male relative. And TV stations have been told to stop showing programs with female actors.

Mahtab’s dream is to go back to Afghanistan one day and serve her country again, in some other way. “I don’t want to have children. All the children of Afghanistan are my children,” she said. “Maybe I’ll open an orphanage.” Maybe, she said, she’ll name it Anargul, after the pomegranate-girl with the big eyes.

In the meantime, all the Platoon members have to figure out a way to legally stay in America. The Platoon members ultimately evacuated Afghanistan through a program known as humanitarian parole, which means they can stay in the U.S. for up to two years and are entitled to Social Security numbers and work authorization papers. Most have also applied for something known as a Priority 1 visa, designed for refugees facing significant threats back home, but those applications are still pending. It is unclear whether evacuees will be able to receive extensions of the parole status while they wait for resolution, according to the National Immigration Forum.

In the months to come, the Platoon members may need to apply for asylum — through America’s dysfunctional asylum system, which has over 400,000 cases sitting in a backlog. Doing so may require expensive immigration lawyers and years of bureaucratic wrangling.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate is drafting language to introduce an Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow the Platoon members and thousands of other Afghan evacuees living in the United States to apply for permanent status through a more streamlined system (just as Congress has done for Cuban, Vietnamese and Iraqi refugees, among others, in the past). The process could still take years, but it would be easier, cheaper and faster than the asylum system.

For now, these women still have more support than most of the other 76,000 Afghan evacuees living in America. Each Sisters of Service mentor, many of whom are themselves military veterans, receives training, attends bimonthly meetings and spends two to four hours a week in communication with their Afghan mentee. On her own time, Ellie has been traveling around the country, visiting the Platoon members. She brings each one a toy female soldier, in pink. For Mahtab, she brought a whole platoon.

In October, the PenFed Foundation hired two U.S. military veterans who had worked with the Platoon members in Afghanistan to help support all the Platoon members. They coordinate with the Sisters of Service mentors and help provide the Platoon members with rental assistance, medical care and quality English classes — one of the most expensive, hard-to-find and critical pieces of the resettlement puzzle.

So far, some of the Platoon members have received their work authorization papers and Social Security numbers, both of which they need to get a job. Others have not. The resettlement agencies are overwhelmed with cases. Nearly a third closed down under the Trump administration, as the numbers of refugees allowed into the country dwindled. And so, the women’s experiences have varied wildly — depending on which caseworker and agency they were assigned.

On one end of the spectrum, there’s Nahid in Pittsburgh, who received all her papers months ago and, with the help of her American servicewomen comrades, got connected via Facebook to a group of enthusiastic local volunteers. They introduced her to Aimee Hernandez, the owner of a Chick-fil-A restaurant, who spent hours talking with her and her siblings, using their phones’ translation apps. It took about 45 minutes for Hernandez to ask if it was OK that the chicken was not halal. (It was OK.) She hired them on the spot, and they’ve been working full-time in the kitchen for four months now — while also attending English classes at Duquesne University. Nahid, the combat veteran who was good at everything, would like to join the U.S. military one day and work her way up into a leadership position.

On the other end of the spectrum is Nafisa, the sharpshooter, whose papers got lost somewhere in the system. She is living with another Platoon member in an apartment on the outskirts of Atlanta. Catholic Charities Atlanta, her assigned resettlement agency, did not respond to multiple messages I left seeking details about her case.

Caption tk The women attended an art class
Caption tk The women attended an art class
Caption tk The women attended an art class

The Platoon members attend an art class at Refuge Coffee, a coffee shop in Atlanta established to employ immigrants and refugees.

I visited Nafisa and three other Platoon members living in Atlanta in late January, along with Ellie, the American who helped start the Sisters of Service program. Giggling with excitement, the Platoon members ushered me into their living room. They’d set out an elaborate spread of pistachios, cashews, tea and purple heart-shaped cookies with the words “true luv” stamped on each. Nafisa wore lipstick, hot-pink Fila sneakers, jeans and a sweater. (She is always cold in America, so the thermostat was set to a cozy 79 degrees.)

I sat down on their donated floral couch and started asking the obvious questions. Why did you join the Platoon? What was it like?

Nafisa started talking, and then stopped. I looked up from my notebook. There was the sharpshooter, the combat veteran, the giggling 25-year old, with her hand over her face, silently weeping. After a moment, she started talking again: “We started something important,” she said. “And we lost everything, in a moment — the uniform, the power. The Taliban took our chance from us.”

Back in Afghanistan, all of the Afghan military documents related to the Platoon likely fell into the hands of the Taliban. In the chaos of the country’s collapse, the records were not destroyed, as far as the Platoon members know. Nafisa is one of nine children, the only one who managed to evacuate. The rest of her family is now in hiding — targeted by the Taliban because of her work. “I’m here physically,” she told me, “but my heart and mind are in Afghanistan.”

Nafisa spent her first three months in Atlanta checking Facebook, learning English online, listening to music, watching Farsi films on YouTube and killing cockroaches in the kitchen. A year ago, she was running out of helicopters and questioning suspected terrorists. Now, she’s taken up knitting, making a small purple purse for the American women to include in a Sisters of Service fundraiser auction. All she can do is wait. And try not to think. “Life is not bad here,” she told me. “But overall, I do not have a good feeling. I have nothing here to prove that I am here in this country legally. Other people are getting jobs, but for me, everything is very uncertain. I’m not even sure if I will be returned to Afghanistan.”

If the U.S. doesn’t find a way to make use of the talent and experience of this group, their American military counterparts say, it will be a tragedy for both countries. “These women have been highly vetted to work alongside U.S. special operations,” said Ellie. “We don’t want them to end up on nightshifts at Walmart in some small town in America. Put them in places where they can make decisions.”

A table with colored pencils and plastic pink soldiers

Mahtab, the Platoon’s former commander, has decorated her American apartment with photos of her Platoon members as well as a squad of toy female soldiers — a gift from Ellie, a U.S. Army captain who worked with her in Afghanistan.

The next morning, I went running with Nafisa and Ellie. It was the first time Nafisa had gone running since the fall of Kabul. It was bitterly cold, but she was on time, just like always. She wore a scarf, gloves and her jeans and Fila sneakers. We made it about a half mile before she had to turn around.

Since then, her Social Security Card has finally arrived, and with help from Ellie, she was finally able to track down her work authorization information. Her apartment has become infested with rats, and she is planning to move. In late March, she got a job as a barista at a coffee shop in Atlanta.

Her dream is to join the U.S. military one day. “I want to always be in service to the American people and my family,” she wrote me in February. “I will never give up.”

In the meantime, she goes running almost every day. A little farther each time.

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