Representative Image. Photograph:( AFP )
Gul Bibi, an Afghan grandmother well into her eighties, never expected to become a fighter. But now she is one of more than a hundred women in Afghanistan's northern Jawzjan province who have taken up arms against Islamist militants. Nearly all of the women have lost a husband, son or brother to the Taliban or the newly active Islamic State in the province bordering Turkmenistan.
"I lost nine members of my family. The Taliban and Daesh (Islamic State) killed my five sons and four nephews," Bibi said by phone from Jawzjan. "I have taken up arms to defeat the terrorists so other people's sons won't get killed."
Determined to protect their families, the women approached a local police commander, Sher Ali, in December and asked him for guns and ammunition. "They came to me and said that if I didn't provide them with weapons they would kill themselves - before Daesh or the Taliban could," Ali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The women are not a properly structured group, he said; they have no uniform and have not received any military training other than how to point a gun at the enemy and shoot.
The Taliban has carried out attacks in Jawzjan for the last decade, part of a country-wide insurgency to topple the Afghan government and drive out foreign troops. Islamic State became active in the province, a gateway to Central Asia, in early 2016, when a Taliban commander and 50 of his fighters declared allegiance to the ultra-hardline group, said Mohammad Reza Ghafoori, spokesman for Jawzjan governor.
On December 25, Islamic State fighters attacked Garmjar village and killed five civilians, burned down about 60 houses and forced 150 families to flee, he said by instant messenger.
A woman in her twenties, who did not want to give her name, said her husband and many other family members had been killed by the Taliban. Now she is fighting back, she said.
"I hit the Taliban with this PK (machine gun), and the Taliban fled. Most of the their men died. I will stand against Daesh and will hit them too," she said by phone from Jawzjan.
'Fight to death'
The women fighters are not registered with the army or police and the government has not licensed their weapons, Abdul Hafiz Khashi, head of the security department of Jawzjan police, was reported as saying in the Afghan media last week.
Although local police have cautiously welcomed the new defence force, he said, the rag-tag women's unit has raised concerns among higher authorities.
"We do not support any armed group, unless they come under one of our forces," Najib Danish, the deputy spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said from Kabul.
"We hope they join the Afghan security forces, so we can help them as part of our troops," he said.
But the women accuse the Afghan army of failing to protect their families from the militants.
"First they killed my brother, then they killed my cousin, my uncle and my brother-in-law," said Zarmina, another woman fighter. "Now that I have taken up arms, I am going to fight to the death."
Thousands of civilians have been killed in Afghanistan in violence since the Taliban government was brought down in the U.S.-led campaign of 2001.
Afghan armed forces control no more than two thirds of national territory, and have struggled to contain the Taliban insurgency since the bulk of NATO soldiers withdrew at the end of 2014.
The United States has announced plans to send 300 Marines to the volatile southern province of Helmand, large parts of which are under Taliban control, as part of a regular rotation of troops helping train and advise Afghan forces.
Russia, China and Pakistan warned month last that the influence of Islamic State was growing in Afghanistan and that the security situation there was deteriorating.
Mariam lost three members of her family in the Islamic State attack on Garmjar village in December. She fled to Qush Tepa and joined the women fighters.
"Daesh came, hit us, abused us, killed our people and burned about a hundred houses. They didn't leave anything for us. They killed three members of my family. They wanted to burn us, but we fled and came here," she said by phone.
"When you have nothing left in your life, you will take up weapons and fight to the death."