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US ‘Band of Sisters’ hope to inspire Afghan girls

Gardez — Staff Sergeant Quitze Garcia and her colleagues have a potential solution for Afghanistan, with the conflict now in its ninth year and mounting concern about a bloody Taliban resurgence.

"We say that if this was left up to the women, there would be peace. There wouldn’t be this sort of fighting," said Garcia — or "Kitty" to her friends.

The 36-year-old US Army officer is one of only eight female military personnel stationed at the heavily-fortified Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base on a desert plain in remote Gardez, southeast Afghanistan.

The base can seem a lonely place, particularly at night, when the stars in an endless sky shine like diamonds on black velvet and the shadows of the mountainous border with Pakistan close in under the full moon.

But these women feel the isolation more than most.

Garcia, a divorcee, has three children aged six to 17; Technical Sergeant Michelle Mason has two daughters aged 14 and 21 months; while First Lieutenant Margia E. Brito was married only five days before her deployment.

Hosey Rehmat, the PRT’s Afghan-American translator, has six children and a husband suffering from stomach cancer.

First Lieutenant Lauren Johnson has no children but still wants to be with her sister, who is eight months’ pregnant with twins.

"I’ve enormous respect for these women," the public affairs officer said on her 26th birthday Thursday. "I can’t imagine leaving my family or kids."

The women are on deployments in Afghanistan ranging from six months to a year.

Over tea and plates piled with cookies, muffins, sweets and fruit, the women spent several hours recently chatting with Ching Eikenberry, the wife of Washington’s ambassador to Kabul, who was in Gardez to open a new US cultural centre.

With men, the talk would most likely be about careers, their achievements or favourite sports team, but the women bond over children, family and feelings.

Ching Eikenberry reminisces about how she met her husband, Karl, the letters they exchanged while he was in the military and their two children, then opens up the floor for debate like a seasoned television talk-show host.

Many of the women get emotional as they talk about their families.

Garcia worries about her 13-year-old daughter, who wants to go snowboarding, and her 17-year-old son, who has just split up with his girlfriend and bought a new car.

"I’m out here in Afghanistan and I’m more worried about my children’s safety," she said.

Others are more matter-of-fact.

"It wasn’t my choice. The military has always been part of my life and that was something I had to do," said Mason on leaving her children. "It’s hard. But this is a good mission and what we’re doing is important."

Family and motherhood become a metaphor during the talks for US and NATO involvement in Afghanistan, which has received 20 billion dollars in Western aid since 2001 but where there is concern about rampant corruption and waste.

"I’m not going to take care of my kids for the rest of my life," said Garcia. "At some point they’re supposed to take over.

"My job is not to tell my son, ‘You’re going to be a banker when you grow up’. It’s to teach my children the right choices. I’m not telling them what to think. I’m telling them how to think."

A similar approach should be employed in Afghanistan, she added.

Her colleagues agreed.

"When you give your kids too much, they don’t appreciate it. If they earn it for themselves, then they appreciate it," said Garcia.

The women — "we band of sisters", according to Garcia — are firm believers in empowering Afghan women because of the influence they have on their sons.

Garcia, born and raised in New York, the daughter of a Puerto Rican father and Guatemalan mother, said Afghan girls especially respond well to them.

"I’m the same skin colour. I’ve got the same hair colour. I can see it on the little girls’ faces. They’re looking at me and saying, ‘You’re strong’ and I’m saying to them, ‘No, you’re strong’," she said.

Paktya province, of which Gardez is capital, was once a former Taliban stronghold and is near the Tora Bora mountains where Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden fled in late 2001.

Along with cutting high maternal mortality rates, one of the PRT’s main aims is education, particularly of girls, who were banned from attending school when the Taliban held sway.

New educational facilities for boys and girls have been built with US help.

But Garcia said the presence of female soldiers could be just as effective.

"We hope that we leave behind an impression on the girls," she added.

"They see us jump out of these huge MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armoured vehicles) with these huge guys, wearing the same stuff and doing the same stuff. We’re working side by side."

On patrol, she says: "I tell the girls, ‘Don’t be afraid of the Taliban. The Taliban are afraid of you because you’re opening your mind’."