Hawa Haidari remembers her most dangerous mission.  It ended with her hiding for what seemed like hours in a river.

For six years, Haidari was secretly an Afghan female commando, working alongside U.S. Special Forces to locate and identify terrorists during the war in Afghanistan. The dangerous mission was an overnight raid. She and another member of the Female Tactical Platoon slipped into a house, looking for a terrorist.

Left behind in a river

Minutes later, Haidari heard a voice through her radio.

“They say, ‘Get out of the house in five minutes or the Taliban will come and … shoot you or attack you,’” Haidari recalls.

She and her colleague raced out of the house and jumped into a large river. Haidari slipped on the rocks and sank deep into the water, but they stayed in the river and called for help on the radio. A helicopter circled to rescue other members of the mission, but the propellers were too loud for the two women to be heard.

Haidari planned for the worst. “I was just thinking: If the Taliban come, what should I do, what should I use [to kill them]?”  Taliban fighters never showed up, and eventually the two fighters were rescued.

Success through cultural taboos 

Because of Afghanistan’s conservative culture, Afghan men did not suspect that Afghan women could carry guns or work with the military.

Mahnaz Akbari led the Female Tactical Platoon (FTP) as its commander for 10 years and says the taboo against men touching females also worked to their advantage. When the U.S. military raided the home of a suspected terrorist, Akbari says the suspect would give “his SIM card, phone, and passport to females to hide them.” They would also hide weapons on their female relatives and that, Akbari said, “made the mission successful,” once her team searched the women of the house.

Even though the missions are over, Akbari is proud of what her platoon accomplished and believes that the team nudged social norms a bit more for all Afghan females and for her home country.  “I think in Afghanistan, every job that a woman does, even if it is very small, prepares the ground for the development of a more democratic society. When women become involved,” she continued, “it represents great opportunity for our country.”

Haidari, Akbari and 40 other members of the FTP left Afghanistan for the United States after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. They settled in different areas of the country, and many had not seen other platoon members outside of Afghanistan until they gathered for an October reunion at the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The program was sponsored in part by a U.S. federal credit union through a foundation to assist the FTP with resettlement in American communities.

From commandos fighting Taliban to battling immigration

The resettlement is fraught with obstacles as these women face another fight: getting immigration status.

The FTP was a secret program financed by the Afghan government under the supervision and training of U.S. forces. So they lack necessary human resource paperwork for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) that can lead to citizenship.

The Afghanistan Adjustment Act would include the FTP’s in the SIV group, but the measure has yet to be approved by the U.S. Congress. The platoon entered the country with parolee status and some, like Haidari, have applied for asylum.

‘Women can do this’ 

Haidari lives with her three sisters in a two-bedroom apartment in Spokane, Washington. Her days are filled with English classes, working at an Asian fast food restaurant, and strength, endurance and resistance training.

At the gym, she pulls on her oversized pink boxing gloves and spars. She does squats with kettlebells. She climbs ropes. She prances through an agility drill. She tackles battling ropes.

The petite, 140-centimeter woman who tops the scale at 46 kilograms has a towering goal.

“I want to become an MMA fighter, fighting with people in the ring,” she said.

Haidari is working to be the first Afghan woman to win a spot in mixed martial arts, a full-contact sport incorporating many techniques.

In her military job, she faced much gender discrimination from Afghan men who told her to quit the platoon. She says she now enjoys the freedom to pursue her new goal.

“In Afghanistan there are a lot of people who tell women, ‘You should be at home and can’t do this, can’t do that.’ That’s why I want to show them that women can do this.”