Afghanistan: The Trials of Woman Paratrooper Khatool Mohammadzai

General Khatol Mohammadzai
“I should be helping to train commandos and paratroopers,” Mohammadzai says. Mikhail Galustov / Redux for Newsweek

As badly as things went for her that day, Khatool Mohammadzai nevertheless glows at the memory. It was the first day of spring 2002, and she was standing in a helicopter as it hovered roughly a kilometer up in the sky above Kabul. Down on the ground, President Hamid Karzai and thousands of other Afghans were crowded into the country's National Stadium to celebrate the first Afghan New Year since the fall of the Taliban, only four months before. The jubilant gathering was a sharp break from Mullah Mohammed Omar's theocratic regime, which had used the stadium for public stonings and other executions.

And now came Mohammadzai's moment: carrying a half-dozen doves, the woman who had been the first female paratrooper in Afghan history jumped from the helicopter. When her multicolored chute opened, she released the doves and floated gently toward earth, holding a Quran and an

Afghan flag. Unfortunately the pilot had missed his bearings. Mohammadzai landed kilometers away from the stadium—but instead of slinking home in humiliation, she hailed a cab. When she finally arrived, still carrying her parachute, the crowd erupted in applause and cheers. "For me and my country it was the beginning of a new life," she reminisced to Newsweek. "I felt we had been reborn. I showed the world how brave Afghan women are and what they can do."

She was a national hero, a living symbol of her country's hopes for the future, featured regularly on television and at women's events. She was promoted from colonel to general, the first Afghan woman to achieve that rank since the overthrow of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992, and she soon rose to three stars. "I remember her well," says Georgia National Guard Brig. Gen. Larry Dudney, who became her friend in Afghanistan despite the language barrier. "I was very impressed with her. She exudes confidence, she really does." At her speaking engagements she sometimes talked about that ill-fated jump. "It was a funny story," says Dudney. "She told it as an example of perseverance, of facing up to adversity, never quitting."

Those stardom days are over. Many Afghan women fear that their advances of the past decade are being whittled away—and Mohammadzai's relatives and longtime military friends consider her a prime example. "I thought she would be a role model for the new generation of Afghan girls and women," says Noorjahan Akbar. "But she has been sidelined." The student activist, now 20, first met the paratrooper five years ago while helping a writer friend who was doing a book on courageous Afghan women.

Mohammadzai, 45, made more than 600 jumps in her 28-year military career, and her precise and daring skydives used to be a regular part of every Independence Day and New Year's celebration in Kabul. Nevertheless, it has now been five years since her military and civilian superiors last allowed her to put on a parachute. Instead, she's been shunted out of the spotlight into a make-work assignment in a Defense Ministry back office.

She doesn't openly criticize her commanders—she's too good a soldier for that—but her admirers aren't so reticent. They say she has become a victim of biases that still plague Afghanistan. It's not only that she's a woman, they say: ethnic discrimination also plays a part. Mohammadzai is a Pashtun, and the Defense Ministry, along with the military's top brass, is dominated by the Tajiks who led the Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban in 2001. The ministry denies that gender bias or ethnic favoritism exists in the armed forces, but it seems unlikely that the men who run Afghanistan's military would be free from the traditional sexism that pervades the rest of the country. "I don't like her," an ostensibly well-educated Kabul construction engineer says of Mohammadzai. "Women have no place in the military."

General Khatol Mohammadzai
With a photo of herself from the 1990s, in the days before the Taliban took over and ordered all Afghan women to cover up and stay home. Mikhail Galustov / Redux for Newsweek

Concern over Afghan women's declining status is only deepening as the Karzai government seeks reconciliation with the Taliban, and the Americans prepare to go home. "Our rights are going downhill, because our government's and the international community's focus has shifted from protecting Afghan women's rights to a politically correct option of negotiating with the Taliban," says Akbar. "We women have little or no say in these discussions."

The Kabul of Mohammadzai's childhood was a proudly cosmopolitan city. Men and women alike were legally entitled to public education and good jobs; burqas were a rare sight, and young women routinely wore miniskirts or jeans. "In those days it wasn't necessary for a woman to cover her hair, arms, and legs," she recalls. But hard times came to the Mohammadzai family in the early 1970s, when Khatool was 6: her father, a customs officer, died, leaving her mother to raise seven daughters and two sons on her own. Somehow the widow handled the job—and did it well, too, if Mohammadzai is any evidence. She grew up athletic, full of energy, and absolutely fascinated by airplanes.

The girl was 13 when the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan. Many in Kabul actually welcomed the coming of the Russians; a violent power struggle had erupted among Afghanistan's Marxist rulers, and the hope was that the December 1979 invasion would stabilize the government. In fact, the effort succeeded, at least in a limited way. While Soviet troops waged a long and brutal war for control of the countryside, the turmoil in Kabul ended quickly. The Kremlin-backed regime continued its efforts to modernize Afghanistan, including support for women's rights. Basic human rights were an entirely different matter, of course: the Russians tolerated no opposition to their program.

By the time Mohammadzai finished high school, the Soviets had occupied Afghanistan for more than three years. When an Afghan military recruiter came to her high school on graduation day and asked for volunteers to join the Afghan Army, the 17-year-old immediately raised her hand. Her mother was struggling to support the family, and jobs were hard to find—but more than that, Mohammadzai says she craved the challenges of military life. "I wanted to do what was most demanding, strenuous, and athletic," she says.

So she signed up to become a paratrooper. She vividly recalls how she and her fellow volunteers, almost all men, were sent on a two-day, 150-kilometer march over rough terrain from Kabul to the eastern city of Jalalabad with full packs. The young woman slept in the open among the male trainees. A rock was her pillow, and by the time the ordeal was over, her feet were bleeding. "We suffered a lot," she says. But she aced the course.

She admits she was scared when she made her first parachute jump in 1984, but she forgot her fear almost before her chute opened. She recalls a strange sensation: it wasn't at all like falling. "Will I be stuck in the air forever?" she recalls wondering. "Who will get me down?" Although she never saw combat against the U.S. backed mujahedin, she got so good at soldiering that she was eventually made an instructor, giving commando and paratroop training to males as well as females. "She always had higher spirits and was a better commando, jumper, and shooter than I was," says Afghan Brig. Gen. Abdul Basir Asifzari, who trained with her in the 1980s. "She could fly circles around me when we jumped."

In those days, Mohammadzai says, she was never subjected to official discrimination. Still, she encountered her share of individual bigotry. She particularly remembers one jump in the 1980s that almost killed her. Her main chute failed to open fully, sending her into an uncontrollable spin as she plunged toward the ground. She had the presence of mind to open her auxiliary chute, which at least slowed her fall, but she broke a leg and several ribs and dislocated her wrist, elbow, and shoulder. She remains convinced that her chute was sabotaged by a resentful male paratrooper. Still, he was never caught and punished.

In 1989, after nine years of an exorbitantly draining war, the Russians gave up and went home. The Afghan puppet regime managed to survive for three more years before collapsing in 1992. But the victorious guerrillas couldn't afford to punish Mohammadzai too harshly for having been on the losing side; they desperately needed professional soldiers with her skills. She was named director of women's physical training for the Air Defense Corps. And yet in many ways the mujahedin's attitude toward women wasn't much different from that of the Taliban: they barred her from parachute jumping, and she was required to wear a head-to-toe abaya whenever she appeared in public. Although Mohammadzai didn't like the situation, she had no choice. She had married an Afghan soldier in 1990, and he was killed in action just a year later, only 40 days after she had given birth to his son.

Life became even tougher when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. All women were ordered to stay indoors at home until further notice, and Mohammadzai found herself trapped in her small apartment, with little money and no prospects, forbidden to work or even step outside unless escorted by a male relative. But unlike many of her military colleagues, she refused to flee the country. She's proud of that. "I decided to stay, hoping for change," she says. To make ends meet, she sewed dresses for friends and neighbors, and she opened a clandestine girls' school in her home. Her customers and students paid her with whatever basic necessities they could get—sometimes a sack of flour, sometimes a bottle of cooking oil.

But she and her son survived, and soon after the collapse of the Taliban regime she was called back to active duty with the new Afghan National Army. At first she wore a burqa over her military uniform on the way to and from the ministry, just to be on the safe side—until the day a policeman accosted her and contemptuously demanded: "Auntie, where do you think you're going?" She tore off her burqa, flung it at the cop's feet, and walked away, she says. She hasn't worn a burqa since.

Mohammadzai's friend General Asifzari says he was amazed how quickly she got back in shape and returned to jumping after so many years out of action. She worked with Afghan, NATO, and U.S. military officers to design physical-training programs for the Afghan National Army. In her apartment she proudly displays certificates of merit from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade and 82nd Airborne Division, and she's been awarded paratrooper medals by the United States, Canada, and France. She was the only female entrant in an international parachute competition held in Kabul on Afghan Independence Day, 2004. She won, beating 35 male paratroopers.

Nevertheless, Mohammadzai hasn't been able to put on a parachute since 2006. "I really miss jumping, but I'm not allowed anymore," she says. "I loved the crowds when I'd jump into stadiums." Instead she's been relegated to a small office in the Defense Ministry's compound, and it's in an annex, not even inside the vast headquarters building. She's been made "deputy director of planning and physical training" for a disaster-preparedness reserve force that won't even begin recruiting until next year. As she strides through the ministry's compound, few officers or enlisted men even bother to salute, despite the three stars on her epaulets, the four sets of paratrooper wings over one breast pocket, and the 35 meritorious-service medals pinned over each other.

Her recent interviews with Newsweek at her Defense Ministry office and her modest Kabul apartment were the first she's been allowed to give in the past three years. The last time was when a foreign television crew tried to interview her at the Defense Ministry. Even though she had written permission to speak, guards physically stopped the interview and broke the journalists' video camera. "I just don't have authority anymore," says Mohammadzai.

She's not alone in finding herself marginalized. "It's a big problem," says Horia Mosadiq, a research analyst for Amnesty International in Kabul. "Whether they are government ministers or military officers, women always have to deal with discrimination, and have only a very small role in decision making." The situation galls Mohammadzai. "I should be helping to train commandos and paratroopers," she says. "I could have helped my country a lot more in the past few years if I had been given the right job." And she longs to get back in the sky. "Women and men are the wings of one bird," says a poster on her office wall. As long as war and bigotry persist in Afghanistan, the country will have little hope of taking flight.

With John Barry