Kabul, Afghanistan John Kerry bounced a soccer ball off his head and tossed it to Zahra Mahmoodi, the captain of the Afghan Women's National Soccer team, during a friendly exchange Tuesday at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Mahmoudi founded the team in 2006 after the Taliban, which banned women from playing sports, was ousted from power from by NATO-led forces. The prominent Afghan athlete told Kerry her goal is to make it to the Olympics, and she sent Kerry home to the U.S. with a request: help her team find a new practice field. The women's soccer field in Kabul has been turned into a helicopter landing pad for international military forces.
That may be one of the easier requests the Secretary of State received during his two-day visit to Kabul. He met with a number of prominent Afghan women during an Entrepreneurship Showcase held on Embassy grounds. Virtually each one of the eight women selected to meet Kerry took the opportunity of being face-to-face with the U.S. Secretary of State to express fears over their security and well-being after NATO-led forces draw down their military presence at the end of 2014.
Trucking company owner Hassina Syed told Secretary Kerry she fears her business will be in jeopardy once NATO forces are no longer able to secure the roads that carry goods to neighboring countries.
Dry-food exporter Kamela Sidiqi of Kaweyan Business Development Services said it is still very difficult for women to access financing, and she worried that business will be hurt after security is completely transferred to Afghan forces next year.
These women represent a small, privileged faction of Afghan society, but their worries are widely shared.
Women's rights are currently protected in the Afghan constitution, but many here fear those guarantees will disappear after the majority of NATO troops head home. During the years of Taliban-rule, girls were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, were forced to cover their faces and were not allowed to work.
The Taliban is no longer in control of the country, but its fighters still stage attacks in Afghanistan and find safe haven inside neighboring Pakistan. The U.S. government is pushing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to formally begin a peace process with the Taliban in an effort to get its leaders to renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda and help unify Afghanistan.
Some members of the Taliban are already in contact with the Afghan government and willing to negotiate, President Karzai said during a press conference with Kerry on Monday.
The goal is to integrate elements of the Taliban into the political system so the Afghan government can maintain control of the country after international forces leave. Karzai said he'll begin the formal reconciliation process in the next few days. The Qatari government will host any future peace talks in Doha.
On Tuesday morning, the Taliban claimed responsibility for multiple suicide bomb attack on a police facility in eastern Afghanistan. At least four police were killed and four others injured. The attack underscored the fact that the Taliban is still a threat to the Afghan government.
Women's rights were a key issue for Kerry's predecessor Hillary Clinton, and he has pledged to continue to prioritize it as part of his foreign policy agenda.