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Kerry pledges continued U.S. support for Afghan women

Accepting a challenge from the captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team, Secretary of State John Kerry hit a header yesterday while hearing the success stories of a handful of female Afghan entrepreneurs.

“Hey!” Kerry called when he hit his shot and directed the ball to Zahra Mahmoodi, a founding member of the women’s team in 2006. She told him that girls were not allowed to play soccer during the rule of the Taliban, the radical Islamist movement that held power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001. Now they play regular matches, but only before select crowds – because women playing sports outdoors is still taboo in much of the country.

Kerry bought a soccer ball hand-stitched by Afghan women and praised the group of businesswomen for their courage and drive. The event was part of Kerry’s first trip to Afghanistan as secretary of state and a reminder of the fragile advances made by women after nearly 12 years of U.S.-sponsored government.

The Obama administration has set a hard deadline for the withdrawal of combat forces next year, but Kerry repeatedly pledged continuing U.S. support for Afghanistan’s economic and political stability, and for women.

The Taliban might regain some effective political control after U.S. forces leave or might strike a deal with the Kabul government. The Obama administration has said those are matters for Afghanistan to decide, but the kind of large-scale help that Afghanistan will need is likely to be partly contingent on safeguarding gains for women.

In two days of talks, Kerry urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to help ensure a fair election for his replacement next year, something Karzai said is essential to Afghanistan’s future. The United States is pushing Karzai’s loyalists and opponents to avoid a repeat of badly flawed and corrupt voting in 2009.

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