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April 9, 2007

Kandahar's Top Cop is a Woman

The Taliban leave death threats on her door at night. But for Malalai Kakar, Kandahar's top cop, fear is not an option.

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It is morning in Kandahar, and the streets are full of Taliban. They wear white or black turbans, long beards, and charcoal eyeliner, and drive Toyota pickup trucks, roaring through intersections, narrowly missing street vendors' carts, acting like they own the place-which, in a way, they do. Five years after the Americans forced the Taliban from power, they are reemerging. In fact, they never really surrendered so much as melted away-disappearing into their homes and the hills, waiting for the day when the world would forget about Afghanistan.

On one such street, Malalai Kakar, 40, is getting her six children ready for school: buttoning jackets, tugging T-shirts over heads. While they await their mother's help, Malalai's children take turns tearing pieces from a thin pancake filled with green onions placed on a table in the room where they gather. Older children brush the locks of the younger ones; girls braid each other's hair. Preparations completed, Malalai opens the door and watches her children disappear down the lane toward school. Then she pushes the door shut and locks it.

Alone in the house, Malalai walks quickly to a room in back and grabs an AK-47 that's leaning against a wall. She takes a box of ammunition from the shelf and begins slipping bullets into a banana clip, listening to the click as each cartridge snaps into place. She checks the safety catch and looks at her watch. There's a knock on the door. It is Malalai's brother, who has driven her to work every day for five years now. He is her protection, ensuring that they never take the same route two days in a row. Malalai disappears beneath a powder-blue burka, holding her AK-47, now partially concealed, close to her side. She slips out the door.

Despite her covert actions, Malalai is neither vigilante nor gangster. In Afghanistan, she is something considerably more dangerous: the first woman to attend-and graduate from-the Kandahar Police Academy, and the first to become an investigator with the Kandahar Police Department. Such historic events, which could be lauded as proof of just how far women have come in Afghanistan, are also the reason why Malalai lives in a constant state of siege. Most mornings, before her children wake, she peeks out her front door to look for a "night letter"-a death threat from the Taliban pinned to her home that she doesn't want her children to see. "The notes say things like 'Quit the force, or else,'" she says, with a thin smile. "Of course, I won't."

Inside the Kandahar Police Department, a square, concrete building with tiny windows, Malalai heads for the squad room, where she removes her burka and straightens her uniform. She wears a crisp navy-blue safari shirt with the sleeves rolled up and matching canvas pants gathered in folds around her hips, held up by a thick black belt. Clearly, the Kandahar Police Department never planned on providing a uniform for someone with a 24-inch waist. Against her bone-thin, five-foot frame, the 9-mm pistol strapped to her hip looks comically large.

Kandahar is, hands-down, one of the world's scariest cities. In spite of the U.S. and NATO street patrols, the Taliban seem to be everywhere. "They come out almost every night now," says Malalai. "They're responsible for drive-by shootings, bombings at police posts, and the daily mortaring of a NATO base outside town." Residents are on edge. Foreigners keep to themselves and live behind high walls with armed guards. Police at checkpoints look jumpy, and men with submachine guns wander the hotels. Nearly everyone on the street carries a weapon.

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