As A Child, She Fled The Afghan War. As An Officer, She Returned — And Found Herself
Every day of Lyla Kohistany's life, her native Afghanistan was at war. But the first time she really saw the country, she was a 25-year-old U.S. Navy intelligence officer.
"I remember the aircraft doing the whole zigging and zagging because you don't want to get hit by insurgent fire," Kohistany said of her first deployment in 2005.
Kohistany's family had left when she was a toddler, so she had no memory of the breathtaking snowy mountains that surround the Afghan capital. Their beauty moved her, but also made her realize how lucky she was to have grown up in the U.S.
"I was born an Afghan woman at a time when it was awful to be an Afghan woman," she said. "But as an adult, I became an intelligence officer at the most opportune time to become an intelligence officer focused on Afghanistan."
Now as Afghanistan braces for another stage in its five decades of conflict, America is leaving, declaring its war there not won or lost, but simply over. For U.S. veterans, the end is spurring emotionally charged questions about their sacrifices in Afghanistan. For Kohistany and her brother, Bashir, who also served, the same questions are complicated by their deep knowledge of the country America is leaving behind.
Her fight for freedom began at home
The Kohistany family fled to America in 1982, after her father spoke out against the Soviet occupation. He still tried to be part of the fight by raising money for the Afghan resistance, the mujahideen. And Lyla was an asset; her father would parade her around at parties in Washington, D.C., when she was 7 years old, on behalf of the "freedom fighters."
"I remember having to put on this very traditional Afghan dress, it has these tiny little mirrors all over it, and then the matching pants and this headscarf," she said, "And then clip it so that it would almost look like a tiara at the top of my head."
Lyla's mom would help her to get ready, putting heavy, dark makeup on her eyes.
"During those nights when I would have to get ready, she would always say to me, 'Be good.' She would always say, chup bosh, which means just be quiet. Don't say anything to upset him," Kohistany remembered.
That's because her father's ideas about freedom didn't extend to his own home, for his wife or children, she said.
"He just had a lot of rage. He could find enemies anywhere," Bashir Kohistany said. "My father was just a very unhappy person. Maybe he felt trapped and that we were the ones that were holding him back."
Bashir is six years older than Lyla, and he remembers when she was born in Kabul. He recalls a family legend: that when Lyla fell ill as a baby, they fed her wolf's meat as a cure.
"So we say that Lyla, her spirit animal is the wolf. And that she's had that ferocity, that spirit ever since she was a child," Bashir said.
Bashir says he and his sister felt like allies against their father's abuse, but Lyla's defiant nature cost her.
"He used the belt, he used a shoe, he used his hands. Lyla received extreme beatings. One time he actually broke her nose," Bashir said.
"To be completely honest, I actually thought that my dad might kill me," Lyla said. "And not on purpose. I thought that he would just end up beating me so bad one day."
Their father died in 1992.
Her prospects got darker, and her brother plans his escape
Increasingly, Bashir started to think about the future — and escape. He wasn't spared his father's wrath, even as he grew bigger. One time his father choked Bashir unconscious. At 17, almost on a whim, Bashir joined the navy, and moved to San Diego.
"He left, and I remember being heartbroken. Because I knew that he needed to go, but he's the only person that's been able to protect us," Lyla said.
Her future only got darker. They moved into a smaller apartment, a basement. Her father, with the Soviets out of Afghanistan, was working on a plan to go back. Then Lyla overheard him on the phone with Bashir one evening.
"My dad tells him, I think it's time to take your sister back and to marry her off," she said.
Lyla was only 12, and the potential husband was a middle-aged Afghan man.
"The only word I can think of is disgust," Bashir said, "That essentially she would be seen as property."
Bashir's short time in the military had already changed him, and now he had his own ally and mentor. His commanding officer, Anne Diggs, then a Navy lieutenant, told him the military would allow him to take in both his sister and mother as dependents. Bashir flew home on a delicate mission to convince his father.
"If I said the wrong thing, I did the wrong thing, I would be left with nothing except an argument and a fight," Bashir remembered thinking.
Instead he was calm and practical. He thanked his father for bringing the family to America for a better life. And he asked, "Won't your wife and daughter just be a burden right now, in Afghanistan?" Lyla noticed that her brother was different.
"It was wonderful to see him," she remembered. "He stood taller and he was happier."
Bashir's gambit worked. His father agreed to go back to Afghanistan alone. Bashir could hardly believe it until his mother and sister were on the plane with him, headed back to San Diego.
Meanwhile, Lyla was starting to think about following her brother's path, especially when she met his commanding officer
"It was a bit of a shock to realize that, my brother's boss is a lady! Whoa," she said. "And then on top of it, she was brilliant and really kind."
"Obviously my brother is my inspiration for going into the military. But seeing Commander Diggs I'm sure had an impact on me," Lyla added.
She found a way to take pride in both her identities
Lyla started out on a ship, but the U.S. was at war in a landlocked country and she spoke one of Afghanistan's main languages. Lyla soon found herself on a plane to Bagram Airbase, in the mountains north of Kabul.
"It was surreal to be in this place that I'd only ever heard about — that I had left as a baby," she said.
Lyla's first deployment as an intelligence analyst kept her mostly inside a military base, but a foray to a village near the Pakistan border stuck with her.
"There was a village elder named Osama. And I remember being introduced to him, and him asking me if I was actually Afghan," she said.
When she answered yes, Lyla says the elder turned to the men in his village and told them, "Look at these American women, helping us do what we should be doing ourselves."
"It was a really great moment for me as both an Afghan and as an American to hear that," she said. "I was proud as an Afghan to hear this man say, 'We have a responsibility as Afghans to do something.' But then I also felt really proud as an American, especially as an American woman, to hear that man say, look at these women!"
More women than ever were serving, and breaking into branches of the military like special operations. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had taught the special ops community the need for diversity of thought. Also, in a gender-segregated country, the U.S. needed troops who could interact with the 50% of Afghanistan's population that was off-limits to men. Lyla found her input being valued, on Afghan culture but also targeting and analyzing intelligence from U.S. raids against suspected members of the Taliban.
Her brother Bashir also deployed to Afghanistan, advising the Afghan Ministry of Defense on hospital administration.
"She was in Intel. I was, as somebody called me, a staff puke," Bashir said chuckling.
Bashir did radically change the lives of many Afghans though. With his language skills and a laptop with a Persian keyboard, he helped introduce the Excel spreadsheet to the clerks in the Afghan government.
"That was the bright shining moment of my deployment," Bashir said, with another laugh.
Now, she's ready to serve in other ways
In 2012, Bashir left the military. His wife is also a Navy officer, and when their first son was born, she stayed in the service and Bashir got out to raise their children.
Lyla, who by then was working for the Defense Intelligence Agency, left that job in 2014 and started to leave the war behind. Even then, the endgame was visible, she says.
"I knew that we were not going to quote unquote, win militarily. And so I was very reticent to believe at that point that things were going to turn themselves around," she said.
"We both have a sense of underlying sadness about the whole thing," her brother added.
But as an American with her background, Lyla couldn't completely step away. Even as U.S. troops withdrew this year, she has continued consulting for the U.S. military on Afghanistan. That may change as the U.S. withdrawal, already some 95% complete, continues.
"I am relieved when I think about so many of my friends who have deployed there multiple times, and I have been afraid, for myself, for my brother," she said, "I do think maybe our lessened involvement in Afghanistan will allow the Afghan people to find their voice in this conflict."
After years of feeling duty-bound to work on Afghanistan, Lyla says she's ready to serve her country in other ways.
"For me on this personal level of - what does it feel like? What are my next steps?" she asked. "I am looking forward to just being Lyla, someone who cares a lot about America."
Jess Jiang with NPR's Rough Translation podcast contributed reporting to this story as part of the Home/Front series, which examines the civilian military divide in America.