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April 9, 2007

Kandahar's Top Cop is a Woman

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The squad room is in the back of the building, away from the street and less vulnerable to attack. It looks out onto the parking lot. Police jeeps come and go, lights blazing, leaving contrails of dust in their wake. Without exception, the women in this room are here because of their ringleader, Malalai. For months after the fall of the Taliban, she defiantly went around Kandahar's neighbor-hoods, looking for women to recruit. "Sometimes I lied to get them to come here," Malalai says, lighting another cigarette. "I told them it wasn't so dangerous, or that the money was good. I did what I had to do to sign them up." Usually, her pitch began with her own story of following five brothers and her father, Gul Mohammed Kakar, into law enforcement in 1982. (Her father still works for the police department.) Malalai was only 15 when she entered the academy. "My father said I should get a job and be a cop," she remembers. "It was very matter-of-fact. He never treated me any differently from my brothers." As if to prove her toughness, Malalai pushes up her sleeve and shows off a scar. Her colleagues lean forward to look. "This is where a suspect bit me," she says. "He was running away in the market, and I chased him down. He fell, I grabbed him, and he bit me. I was kicking him to make him let go."

Another time, she was on a stakeout at a suspected Taliban enclave with dozens of male officers. "When the Taliban members arrived on motor-cycles, gunfire broke out," she says. "Most of the officers jumped into their police cars and hightailed it back to the station immediately." Malalai and three male officers were left to fend for themselves. For several hours, they held their own against more than a dozen Taliban. Finally, the Taliban retreated. Back at the station, "I was so mad I told the police who had fled, 'You have long mustaches, but you have no bravery,'" she says, using an Afghan folk expression. "I told them, 'You deserted us.'" The men, according to Malalai, looked shame-faced.

The recruitment of women is a top priority for police forces across the country. "We're thinking of paying them more money than male recruits," says General Syed Noorullah, the director of the Kabul Police Academy. "Right now we pay officers $60 a month. We'd offer women $100 a month to join. But even then, I am not sure it will work." Noorullah also hopes a newly constructed hostel for women, built with money from international donors, will attract recruits. But for now, it's almost deserted.

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