Col. Latifa Nabizada, the only female pilot in the history of Afghan aviation, travels to some of the most remote and dangerous corners of her country with a devoted partner next to her in the cockpit — her 5-year-old daughter, Malalai.
They walk hand in hand as they head into the hangar at Kabul's Military Airport, and then board a chopper. They have flown together on more than 300 missions over the past few years, and Nabizada acknowledges the risks of having her daughter onboard.
But she says she has no choice. The air force has no child care facility.
"Trust me, when I have my daughter with me on the flight, I am really worried from the moment we take off to the moment we land," says Nabizada. "For me, it's my profession to go to dangerous areas. So if anything happens to me, it is expected. But why should something happen to my daughter? I am really worried."
U.S. military advisers have asked her not bring Malalai on missions — or at least move her out of the cockpit. But the little girl won't stand for it.
"As soon as they moved her, Malalai would throw a tantrum," Nabizada said. "She would grab my uniform and cry. Anyhow, I am confident of my abilities to control the helicopter while my daughter sits next to me."
The colonel says things could change next year when her daughter turns 6 and can start school.
A Long Journey
This is just one of the many challenges Nabizada has faced on her long journey to becoming a military pilot. It began in the late 1980s, when she and her sister, Lailuma, were the first female graduates of the Afghan Air Force Academy. Lailuma later died during childbirth.
After the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, Nabizada fled to Pakistan. She later returned and rejoined the air force after the Taliban were ousted and the Afghan government began rebuilding the military.
Today, Nabizada's missions often involve supplying troops in remote areas or flying to disaster zones to help provide assistance.
Being a woman in the Afghan military is still not easy, but it has toughened her, she says. She is no longer harassed, she says, citing an Afghan saying that translates roughly as "steel gets harder with the hammering."
The Afghan air force still uses Russian helicopters, a legacy of the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviets helped train a relatively large Afghan air force. But it was reduced to a few rickety planes and choppers in the 1990s, when the country was locked in a brutal civil war.
Rebuilding an air force is a tough task, says U.S. Brig. Gen. David Allvin, commander of the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan.
"Compared to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, it appears the progress has been much slower in the air force," he said. "To tell the truth, an air force takes longer to build."
Today, about 120 Afghan pilots are being trained outside the country, including 40 in the United States. Four Afghan women are among those training in America, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Nabizada.
STEVE INSKEEP, host: NATO airpower has played a critical role in the war in Afghanistan. And as the U.S. and its allies prepare to leave, a new Afghan air force is being trained to take over. Among its pilots is a woman. She is the first, and right now, the only female pilot on the force. NPR's Ahmad Shafi reports.
AHMAD SHAFI: In the 1980's, the Soviet Union helped Afghanistan build a relatively powerful air force. But by 2001, when the American-led invasion began, the country's air force had broken down, left with only a few rickety planes and choppers.
Since 2005, NATO has been rebuilding the Afghan Air Force, with counter-insurgency in mind. It still uses Russian helicopters, and most of the remaining Afghan pilots are Soviet trained.
But Kabul's Western allies are involved in new training programs, says Brigadier General David Allvin, commander of NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan.
Brigadier General DAVID ALLVIN: I've been in command for a year. And compared to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, it appears as though progress has been much slower in the air force. But to tell the truth, an air force takes longer to build.
SHAFI: Right now, there are about 80 Afghan pilots being trained inside the country and 40 more abroad. One of them is a woman. Colonel Latifa Nabizada, a veteran of the Afghan Air Force and the first and, right now, the only female pilot in the history of Afghan aviation.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINES)
Colonel LATIFA NABIZADA: (Through Translator) I fly helicopters, usually to disaster struck areas. I also fly to supply our Afghan troops in the remote areas and also to the frontlines of the war.
SHAFI: Colonel Latifa and her sister, Lailuma, who died while giving birth to a child a few years ago, were the first graduates of the Afghan Air Force Academy in the late 1980s. During the years of Taliban rule, she fled to neighboring Pakistan, but now she's flying again.
As she heads for the hangar at Kabul's Military Airport, Latifa holds the hand of her wingman, or rather her wing kid: her five-year-old daughter, Malalai.
Malalai has flown with her mom on countless missions over the pasts few years. Latifa acknowledges the dangers of having her daughter on board. But she says this is the only way to balance her career with her traditional role as a mother.
NABIZADA: (Through Translator) Trust me, when I have my daughter with me on the flight, I'm really worried, from the moment we take off to the moment we land, that something might happen to her. For me, it's my profession to go to dangerous areas. So if anything happens to me, it is expected. But why should something happen to my daughter? I am really worried.
SHAFI: The Afghan Air force has no childcare facility and Latifa says the American advisers have asked her not bring Malalai on missions, or at least move her out of the cockpit. But the little girl wouldn't have it.
NABIZADA: (Through Translator) As soon as they moved her, Malalai would throw a tantrum. She would grab my uniform and cry. Anyhow, I'm confident of my abilities to control the helicopter while my daughter sits next to me.
SHAFI: Latifa hopes that by next year things will improve when her daughter turns six and will be able start school. Latifa says being a woman in the Afghan military isn't easy. But, she says, 21 years in the air force have toughened her up.
NABIZADA: (Foreign language spoken)
SHAFI: Latifa says she doesn't get harassed anymore. She uses a Dari saying that roughly translates as steel gets harder with the hammering.
Over the past few years, more women have joined the Afghan Air Force. Currently, there are four of them training in the United States.
Foreign troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but a large number of American-led NATO trainers will stay on until 2016, by which time, they hope Afghans will be able to police their own skies.
Ahmad Shafi, NPR News, Kabul.
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.