In her crisp khaki uniform with navy-blue epaulettes, with a pistol tucked snugly in her hip holster and a polished leather cartridge-belt casually slung over her shoulder, Capt. Malalai Kakar cuts an imposing figure of a female supercop on the job — indoors.
But out on the sometimes mean, dusty streets of Kandahar, an unflattering, all-encompassing chaudari, or traditional robe, gets tossed over her dashing ensemble as Kakar tears through town on her next policing assignment.
Deep in Taliban terrain, in the birthplace of a regime that sent shivers down the spines of gender rights activists, in a city where women rarely emerge from their homes, Kakar is the only female cop on one of the world's most dangerous policing beats.
She does her work like a man, she says. And in a patriarchal, tribal society where the gun is often the ultimate arbiter of power, the wiry 35-year-old mother of six is conscious of her unique status as the city's only pistol-packing mama.
"I am the only woman in this city with a pistol," she tells ABCNEWS.com during a phone interview from Kandahar. "I also have a Kalashnikov. I have it not so much to attack other people, but to protect myself."
Almost two years since the fall of the Taliban, the security situation in and around the southern Afghan city of Kandahar has been steadily deteriorating.
Girls' schools and moderate mullahs considered loyal to the government in Kabul have increasingly come under attack in recent months, and aid agencies in the area have been periodically forced to shut down their operations due to mounting assaults.
As the war in Iraq dominates international attention, experts say the war on terror in Central Asia is being exacerbated by Taliban regroupings in southern Afghanistan and across the Pakistan border.
Since late August, five American soldiers have been killed in heavy fighting in the southern provinces. And of the 300 people killed during this period — including civilians, aid workers and militants — the Afghan military and police force have borne the brunt of the recent assaults with ambushes and raids racking up a steady, deadly toll.
From her sparsely furnished office in Kandahar, Kakar can rattle off a list of colleagues killed in recent ambushes and police raids, and she's keenly aware of the hazards of her job.
"The Taliban and the terrorists have sworn to attack us, so of course it's very dangerous — we always have to watch our backs," she says in her native Pashtu. "But until now, I have not been threatened — thank God. And I'm careful, but not afraid. I'm a strong woman and I want to serve my country."
These are make-or-break times for Afghans who have suffered decades of war and instability ever since the 1979 Soviet invasion sparked a CIA-funded resistance movement that gradually unraveled the state and turned it into a drug and terrorist haven.
After 11 months of work and much deliberation by a 33-member Constitutional Commission, a draft constitution is scheduled to be released later this week. The new constitution will then be debated and ratified by a 500-strong loya jirga, or general assembly, in December. If all goes well, general elections will be held in June 2004.