KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A gunman lying in wait shot and killed an 18-year-old woman as she left her job at a U.S.-based development company Tuesday, casting a spotlight on a stepped-up campaign of Taliban intimidation against women in this southern city where U.S. troops plan a major operation in the coming weeks.
Although there was no claim of responsibility and police said the motive for the attack was unclear, Taliban militants have been particularly harsh with women who work for foreign organizations or attend school. Bands of thugs are increasingly harassing women who want jobs, education and their own style of clothing, women and aid workers say.
In Tuesday's attack, the gunman emerged from a hiding place and shot the woman, whose first name was Hossai, after she stepped out of her office building, said deputy police chief Fazle Ahmed Shehzad. Hossai died at the hospital, and the assailant escaped.
Hossai worked for Development Alternatives, Inc., a Washington-based global consulting firm that "provides social and economic development solutions to business, government, and civil society in developing and transitioning countries," according to its Web site.
Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power, fear again dominates the lives of many young women and girls in the violent south, the stronghold of a revived Islamist insurgency that curbed women's rights when it ruled most of the country until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
"Every day the security situation gets worse and worse," said Ehsanullah Ehsan, a clean-shaven man who has devoted the last 16 years to educating girls, first in the remote border regions of Pakistan and since 2002 in Kandahar.
Ehsan is head of the Afghan Canadian Community Center, which provides vocational training and schooling to men and women. He says each day brings another story of threats against his female students. While many of the threats come from the Taliban, others are from criminals and even police.
Harassment of women comes against the backdrop of a general deterioration of law and order in Kandahar, a city of nearly a half million people.
The aim of the upcoming operation by NATO and Afghan troops is to clear Kandahar of Taliban fighters, who threaten and intimidate those who do not follow their strict interpretation of Islam, and to bolster the local police force, which appears incapable of stopping petty crime that is rampant in the city.
In the best of times, lives of women in conservative Afghanistan are far more restricted than in the West, especially in rural areas where a woman's place is in the home and beneath the all-encompassing burqa. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, however, women in urban areas like Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad have more choices - with some in parliament, government and business.
Even in Kandahar, the major city of the ultraconservative south, women say restrictions eased in the first years after the Taliban were gone. But as the Islamist movement began to rebound in 2003, pressure on women to adhere to strict Islamist and Afghan traditions increased - with little protection from the ineffectual and corrupt Afghan police.
Ehsan told of one student whose family was warned by a shopkeeper to keep their daughters indoors and to let them leave only if they are wearing a burqa.
"The shopkeeper knocked on her parents' door and said: 'If you let her go out with her face showing and something happens to her, you have been warned and it will be her own fault,'" recalled Ehsan. "Why is it that every time it is the girls and the women who are targeted in our society?"
He said some threats come from uniformed men and young thugs who "tease the girls and make sexual demands." In the last six months, he believes more such threats have come from the Taliban, who warn women and girls not to go to school or work for foreign organizations.
Sara, 34, said her family is demanding that she quit her $1,300-a-month job with an international organization because the risks are too great, even though her salary is about six times what a policeman in the city earns. She refused to allow her surname or employer to be identified because of fears for their safety.
Ironically, Sara had been one of the few women allowed to work in Kandahar when the Taliban ruled. She taught at one of the handful of girls' schools the Taliban permitted. The school trained nurses for the city's Mir Wais Hospital.
Now, Sara thinks her job as an office worker is just too dangerous.
She and other women interviewed at the Afghan Canadian Community Center were largely skeptical that the coming NATO-Afghan offensive in Kandahar would succeed where eight years of military operations against the insurgents had largely failed to bring a lasting peace.
"In eight years they have done nothing. How is it that they couldn't find (the Taliban) with all their equipment? I heard they had equipment that could see people in a room but they can't find the Taliban," said Gila Bibi, a business management student. "Corruption is in every group, and every group is our enemy - the Taliban, the government, the police."
Hella Popal, a pretty 20-year-old who studies English at the center and dreams of becoming a doctor, says she has been threatened but she doesn't know whom to blame.
"Sometimes we have threats. The thing is there is no security here. I don't know who is making the threats," she said. "I am confused and I am afraid."
Saqina Sikanderi, a feisty teenager taking online courses at the center, criticizes the government, NATO and the Taliban.
"This situation is bad because we have corruption in our government, and teachers don't get paid enough. The police need more salary so they aren't corrupt. But we still say they are better than the Taliban," she said. "I am here. It is dangerous but I am here and I am getting an education. I couldn't before. The Taliban wanted women only to stay inside their home and get married."
But Sikanderi is not convinced she can ever thrive as an educated woman in Afghanistan.
"Maybe though I will go to a foreign country when I get my education if it is still not secure here," she said.