Advancing women's rights in Afghanistan is key to preventing the Taliban from reimposing a radical form of Islam once most foreign troops leave by the end of 2014, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces said on Saturday.
Afghan women have won back basic rights in education, voting and employment since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, but fears are growing such gains could be traded away as Western forces prepare to leave and the Afghan government seeks peace talks with the group.
U.S. General John Allen said the Taliban would have to soften their views to gain acceptance in an Afghanistan that has somewhat opened up since the hardline group was toppled in 2001.
"It's going to be very difficult for the Taliban to reassert themselves, absent of fundamental change in their philosophical approach," he told Reuters in his office at the headquarters of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul.
"If they are seeking to make themselves in a manner that could be palatable to the Afghan citizens, they're going to have to soften some of these uncompromising qualities of their nature and how they treated women and how, I think, they will treat women," the Marine Corps General said.
He spoke a day before handing over command to Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, ending a 19-month tour which was arguably one of the most difficult periods in the NATO-led war, now in its eleventh year.
Allen directed ISAF's transfer of most security across the country to the Afghan army and police, coinciding with dwindling public support for the costly war in the U.S. and coalition countries.
Dunford is expected to be the force's last commander, overseeing the withdrawal of most foreign troops.
GIRLS BACK AT SCHOOL
Despite recent advances, Afghanistan was ranked the most dangerous country in the world for women in a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2011.
Allen said the mass drive to educate girls -- whose enrolment now stands at almost four million, compared to zero during the time of the Taliban -- is crucial in changing the tide of public opinion in the country of 30 million.
"Here's an opportunity for this young generation for whom the Taliban was the nightmare of their parents, not necessarily a personal experience, to grow up in an environment where education is inherent in who they are".
Some in the Taliban say a more moderate branch is emerging, including a different approach to women's education as its leaders eye a political return, but Allen dismissed this. "I don't believe it, I don't believe it for a second".
NATO will play an important role in advocating "the rights of all Afghans in general, but women in particular" going forward, Allen said.
"We're going to work very, very hard to ensure that our interest and commitment does not diminish in any way by crossing that temporal seam of 31st December, 2014," he said, referring to the day the coalition officially ends its mission.
The White House said last month it will nominate Allen as NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, after the Pentagon cleared him of professional misconduct over emails to a Florida socialite linked to a scandal that led his predecessor David Petraeus to resign as director of the CIA.