Associated Press Writer

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. Families discourage their wives and daughters from dangerous jobs often considered corrupt.

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.

Afghans are deeply offended when male soldiers or police search homes where women are present. At border crossings and other sensitive areas, men cannot search women for concealed weapons and other contraband, Macdonald said.

The U.S. is spending the bulk of the money to retrain Afghan police - $397 million in fiscal 2009 alone. Officials say they do not break out how much is spent specifically on female training.

Col. Shafiqa Quraisha, the head of the gender issues unit of the Afghan police, described a raid near Kabul in which insurgents had collected women into a room filled with piles of hay. Because Quraisha was there, she was able to search both the women and the room - finding weapons hidden beneath the hay.

When Gulbesha raids a house, she is the first one through the door so that male residents cannot complain that police have violated decorum by entering a residence with women inside. She wears a uniform of pants covered by a skirt to match the conservative dress expected of women in Helmand. Just before jumping out of the car for a raid, she rips off the skirt so it won't get in the way if she needs to run.

Policewomen must also deal with harassment and threats.

Quraisha said women regularly complain that male administrators won't accept applications for promotion until they agree to have tea or lunch with them. And Islambibi tells of being attacked by women in the villages during operations.

"The men tell their wives to attack me. So they come up and try to tear my headscarf off," she said.

Still, she refuses to quit because she needs the money and is proud of her work.

"I am like a man. I am not afraid," she said.

The risks can be even greater.

In September 2008, two Taliban assassins on a motorbike shot and killed a senior policewoman in Kandahar province. The victim, Malalai Kakar, was head of the department investigating crimes against women in Kandahar and was known for her tough stand against drug traffickers.

"She was always armed. She even slept with her weapon," said her father, Lt. Col. Gul Mohammad Kakar, who encouraged his daughter to join the force. He complained that his daughter's killers remain at large.

"They escaped. We're still looking for them and when I find them, I will take revenge," he said. "Either the government will put them behind bars, or I will kill them."

Six months ago, Gulbesha was attacked as she left her office. She saw a suspicious-looking car near the door as she walked out - the men inside had scarves covering their faces.

"I jumped back, scared," she said. "I know these kind of people are dangerous."

A man in the back seat pulled out a Kalashnikov rifle and started shooting at her. He hit a passer-by in the leg but missed Gulbesha.

She grabbed the pistol from her hip and fired back, wounding the driver in the arm and grazing the shooter in the head.

"Before that I was afraid," Gulbesha said. "But after that I was even more resolved."