Powell visits Afghan capital, urges women voters to register
US Secretary of State Colin Powell flew into the Afghan capital for talks with President Hamid Karzai, as US forces step up the hunt for Osama bin Laden in southeast Afghanistan and officials try to register voters in time for June polls.
Powell and his entourage landed in Kabul from India shortly before 10:30 am on board a US military plane.
Heavy cordons of armed Afghan soldiers and police as well as US marines lined the war-torn capital's streets as Powell's motorcade drove through.
He headed straight to a girls' high school to watch and encourage women to register to vote in elections slated for June.
"It's particularly impressive to see women coming out, women coming out in numbers," Powell told reporters at the registration center.
Authorities are eager to urge Afghan women to enroll on voters' lists as only 28 percent of the 1.5 million Afghans who have registered to vote so far are women.
Powell said that while the average rate of female voter registration was 28 percent, in some areas it was as high as 43 percent.
"It's been growing over time, this is an exercise in democracy," he said.
The girls' school which is now being used as a voter registration center had been closed under the former 1996-2001 Taliban regime and turned into a madrassa (religious school) for boys.
The sluggish pace of registration for the war-torn state's first post-Taliban elections has seen only a tenth of the estimated 10.5 million eligible voters registered, prompting concerns that the country will not be ready for polls within three months.
Powell stressed that the US remained committed to Afghanistan for the long-term.
"The United States is in this for the long haul. They (the Afghans) don't have to hope we will be here. We will be here."
The two and a half year hunt for Osama bin Laden and fighters from his Al-Qaeda network, plus their Taliban allies, is also expected to top Powell's talks with Karzai.
His visit coincides with fresh offensives by both US forces in Afghanistan and Pakistani forces across the border to finally nab bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding somewhere along the rugged 2,500 kilometer (1,550 mile) frontier.
US military commanders have said the two sides are creating a "hammer and anvil" scenario to trap hundreds of Al-Qaeda fighters taking shelter in mountains and caves along the border.
Powell is in the middle of a South Asia tour which has already taken him to New Delhi for talks with Indian leaders. After Kabul he will fly on to Islamabad for talks with Pakistani leaders on Thursday.
In New Delhi Monday he urged Pakistan to intensify efforts to catch Al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives taking shelter in its western border regions, from where they are orchestrating hit and run attacks over the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Monday vowed to stamp out an estimated 600 terrorists hiding in the tribal region.