KABUL Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday met Afghan businesswomen running companies involved in everything from trucking to computer software who fear losing their rights, security and customers when foreign forces leave next year.
Kerry spent close to an hour at the U.S. embassy in Kabul with the entrepreneurs in an effort to show U.S. commitment to women's rights - at one point heading a soccer ball with a 22-year-old female player.
Women who pursue careers in Afghanistan often face opposition from their ultra-conservative society, and despite women winning back many rights since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, their situation remains precarious.
Kerry voiced amazement at the accomplishments of the women, most of whom ran several companies and whose businesses included software services, designing and manufacturing high-heeled shoes and clothing and growing vegetables.
"Everybody's a tycoon," Kerry exclaimed at one point.
But the women voiced concern that the withdrawal of most foreign troops from Afghanistan in 2014, and the election of a new president the same year, will undercut security and inhibit their ability to run their businesses.
One businesswoman, Hassina Syed, told Kerry she was worried about the handover to Afghan security forces that will be completed that year and, in private, was even more blunt.
"They are not able to keep security. Everybody knows the reality," she told Reuters after speaking to Kerry, saying that the authorities simply could not admit that.
Syed estimated her trucking company got 85 to 90 percent of its business from what she described as the "international sector" by providing services such as trucking in fuel from Uzbekistan for the U.S. military.
She also said that she spent between 32 and 35 percent of her earnings on protection payments to ensure that her trucks - she owns 200 and subcontracts 300 - can run safely.
However, Syed said she wanted to stay in the country. "I will be the last woman who will leave Afghanistan."
Zahra Mahmoodi, captain of the Afghan women's national soccer team, asked Kerry for help to build a dedicated stadium where women and girls could play soccer.
Speaking to Reuters afterwards, she said she was particularly worried about a return of the Taliban after 2014.
"Yes, I am worried about that but I don't want to think about it," she said with a nervous laugh. "If the Taliban come back there will be no human rights and I think that it will be even worse than the past."
(Additional reporting by Dylan Welch; Editing by Nick Macfie)