KABUL — The young Afghan woman leaves home every morning with her face and figure hidden by a burqa. At her office, she dons a police uniform, grabs a pistol and starts knocking in doors, looking for drug dealers and Taliban sympathizers.
Gulbesha, 22, is one of about 500 active duty policewomen in Afghanistan, compared with about 92,500 policemen. She is also one of just a few dozen who serve in the volatile south, where Taliban influence is strongest.
At a time when the U.S. is sending an additional 30,000 forces into Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan officials say policewomen play an essential role in winning the war against insurgents. In a culture that strictly separates the sexes, security forces need more women to perform tasks men cannot do, including searching women and homes. Plans call for adding thousands more women in the next five years — a formidable goal in a society where a woman is expected to focus her life on home and family.
Even with a recruitment drive, however, the force has yet to fill the 650 slots already reserved for policewomen. And most of the officers are in relatively safe areas like Kabul and northern Herat province, according to U.S. and Interior Ministry figures.
Of the 15 female police officers in the southern province of Helmand, only Gulbesha and three others got permission from their families to travel to the capital for an eight-week training course that ended Thursday, said Robert Collett, a spokesman for NATO's provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gah.
Of those, only two felt safe enough to be interviewed. They would only give their first names to protect their families from Taliban reprisals.
Gulbesha's colleague, 36-year-old Islambibi, joined the force because she needed money. She walked into the police headquarters in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah three years ago looking for work as a cleaner.
"But when they told me how much they paid cleaners, I said it wasn't enough," Islambibi said. "I asked if they had any better paying jobs and they told me I should become an officer."
She became the first female police officer in Helmand, earning $250 a month in one of the most dangerous provinces in the country.
Policewomen are "an integral part of being able to conduct door-to-door searches," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Anne Macdonald, who helps oversee the training programs.