U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heads a soccer ball made in Afghanistan as he meets with Afghan women members of a U.S.-backed women's entrepreneurship program at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, on March 26, 2013. (JASON REED/AP)

Accepting a challenge from the captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team, Secretary of State John F. Kerry playfully hit a header Tuesday while hearing the success stories of a handful of female Afghan entrepreneurs.

“Hey!” Kerry called when he hit his shot and directed the ball to Zahra Mahmoodi, a founding member of the women’s team. She told him that girls were not allowed to play soccer during the rule of the Taliban, the radical Islamist movement that held power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001. Now they play regular matches, but only before select crowds — mostly made up of family members, because women playing sports outdoors is still taboo in much of the country.

Kerry bought a soccer ball hand-stitched by Afghan women and praised the group of businesswomen for their courage and drive. The event was part of Kerry’s first trip to Afghanistan as secretary of state and a reminder of the fragile advances made by women after nearly 12 years of U.S.-sponsored government here.

The Obama administration has set a hard deadline for the withdrawal of combat forces next year, but Kerry repeatedly pledged continuing U.S. support for Afghanistan’s economic and political stability, and for women.

Hassina Syed, founder of a trucking and catering conglomerate, told Kerry that there are opportunities for women but that she worries about security and the future.

“It’s a little bit insecurity,” she said in English. “I’m being polite to say a little bit.”

A resurgent Taliban has burned girls’ schools and threatened women in several areas of this deeply conservative country, despite the swift embrace of women’s education and the government’s oft-stated commitment to improving health care and opportunities for women.

The Taliban might regain some effective political control after U.S. forces leave or might strike a deal with the Kabul government. The Obama administration has said those are matters for Afghanistan to decide, but the kind of large-scale foreign help that Afghanistan will need is likely to be partly contingent on safeguarding gains for women.

In two days of talks, Kerry urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to help ensure a fair election for his replacement next year, something Karzai said is essential to Afghanistan’s future. Kerry met Tuesday with Afghan lawmakers, rights activists and the country’s chief elections officer. The United States is pushing Karzai’s loyalists and opponents to avoid a repeat of badly flawed and corrupt voting in 2009.

“You are engaged in a remarkable effort, and the whole world is watching,” Kerry told the lawmakers and others in brief remarks before reporters were sent out of the room.

Many of the businesswomen Kerry met earlier had specific requests: better access to credit, government contracting set-asides for women-owned businesses and, from Mahmoodi, more soccer pitches for women. At least one they formerly used has been appropriated as a helicopter landing zone, she said.

Mahmoodi told Kerry she hopes to take her team to the Olympics.

“The males don’t want the females to go outside, but we can’t just do that,” she said, rejecting with a smile the traditional notion that women’s place is indoors.