AS SHE pushed a trolley around a Perth supermarket, few shoppers would have picked the silver-haired grandmother as having once been a thorn in the side of a superpower, a woman who slept with her Kalashnikov rifle by her side, who brokered deals with the Taliban and some of the world's most wanted terrorists, and who was finally forced to flee to Australia with her seven children.
Now, 23 years after she arrived in Perth in 1989, Tajwar Kakar says giving up her comfortable life in Australia to return to Afghanistan is one of the easiest decisions she has ever made.
"I miss the life in Australia where men and women live as equals and where there are no bombs, no mines and no danger," Kakar, 63, says at her office in the capital of Oruzgan province, Tarin Kowt.
"And I hope one day my country can become like that. But when my children were grown up I felt my responsibility to them was over. The children of my country are now my responsibility."
Kakar returned to Afghanistan in 2000 with dreams of starting a girls' school in the Afghan capital, Kabul, which was then controlled by the Taliban. The September 2001 terrorist attacks changed her plans somewhat, but not the depth of her resolve.
After a succession of jobs inside the Karzai government and aid agencies, and a failed bid to enter parliament, she has just been appointed to head the education department of Oruzgan, the impoverished and conservative province that is the focus of Australia's military and development mission.
Sitting in the half-completed department building in Tarin Kowt, she says Oruzgan is a a natural fit for her, enabling her to help her Afghan homeland and to repay what she calls her second country, Australia, for the welcome it gave her and her family in 1989.
"Australia has built schools here but the walls can't teach students," she says. "Lots of money is coming from the Australian government and I want to make sure it's spent the right way."(Her predecessor, however, felt differently and was arrested for embezzlement.)
The Australian government is contributing $36 million over four years to improve the province's literacy rates - 8 per cent for men and just 0.03 per cent for women. Kakar's will not be an easy job. Oruzgan's education system is among the least developed in the country. She says that of the province's 1400 teachers, more than half have only the equivalent of a primary school education.
"What can a student learn from them? Nothing. We must change this."
Finding quality teachers for $85 a month will be a challenge. The few educated people in the province are usually snapped up by foreign aid agencies, for whom they take on often menial roles such as drivers for salaries 10 times that of a teacher .
Finding female teachers for the province's only high school will be even more problematic.
Yet Kakar takes pride in the small steps she has managed to take, recounting the story of year 9 students in the province's only girls' high school coming to her complaining that their female teacher could not adequately teach them science subjects.
Kakar approached the parents of the class and persuaded them to allow two male teachers to teach science at the school.
She knows all too well about the hardships that girls may be forced to endure while trying to gain an education. Engaged at 12 as a second wife to a man she had never met, married two years later and a mother at 15, she completed high school while caring for two children.
Not along after becoming a teacher, she joined the resistance fighters in the northern province of Kunduz when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, partly to avenge the death of her father, who was murdered by forces loyal to the communists when she was a young girl.
She then became a mujahideen liaison officer between Kunduz and Kabul, organising non-violent forms of protest. However, she does admit to leading a group of teachers to disrupt a Soviet military parade by releasing wasps up the soldiers' trousers. On another occasion she had children pop balloons and let off firecrackers to confuse Soviet forces into thinking they were being attacked by the mujahideen.
Despite the urge to do otherwise, she drew a line at violence; the Kalashnikov in her bedroom was only for the protection of her children. "God doesn't like you to kill somebody," she says.
After being imprisoned and tortured because of her rebellious activities, she fled with her family in 1983 across the mountains into Pakistan following threats against her then days-old daughter, Maihan. Maihan, and Tajwar Kakar's six other children and 17 grandchildren live in Australia and they want the family matriarch to return there for good.
"Every time there is an explosion in Oruzgan they call me to say they are worried and want me to come back," Kakar says. "I just tell them not to worry."
Leafing through her scrapbook of her time in Pakistan, where she set up schools and helped refugees before further threats to her life prompted the move to Australia, she proudly shows off letters from resistance leaders, including one printed on cotton that was sewn into clothing to avoid Soviet detection.
One letter is from fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, whom she was lobbying after she returned to Afghanistan in 2000 for permission to open the girls' school in Kabul.
She recounts helping refugees in eastern Afghanistan in the 1980s when during a large battle a man was pointed out to her as a "big commander getting weapons from the Americans". It was only after migrating to Australia years later that she learned that the man was Osama bin Laden.
It's unsurprising, then, that talk of threats against her in Tarin Kowt - where she shops on her own with her meticulously combed hair flaring out of her modest scarf by Oruzgan standards - mean little to her. Indeed, she welcomes dialogue with her detractors.
Last month she was warned to stay out of the bazaar because the Taliban would kill her if they knew she pushing for more education for girls, was shopping by herself and living alone in Tarin Kowt without security.
"Of course they know," she told the man who approached her. "And if they don't know please send them a letter to inform them."
Kakar says Afghanistan's descent into a patriarchal society where women - especially in the Pashtun-dominated south that includes Oruzgan - face shocking discrimination was the result of women in the '60s and '70s casting off religion as they embraced feminism.
"Those women who became educated and modern had often not studied Islam. They were not interested in praying and that's why people became opposed to the education of women."
A school curriculum that ensures Islamic teachings are included, she says, will never be opposed by the Taliban or other conservatives.
Her views might unsettle a few. Australian diplomats in Kabul and military officials in Oruzgan either failed or declined to respond when approached by The Age for an interview about her. Yet it is believed she has the support of both.
The feeling, however, is not mutual. Asked about the state of the 10-year war, she initially says she is too busy worrying about education matters to interfere in other people's affairs, but a week later, over tea in her Kabul apartment, she makes her views clear.
"This war has not been planned very well. Right now, money is coming in but it doesn't go to the needy."
And she remains unconvinced the current strategy will work. "If the war was winnable, it would have been won.''
She is critical of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year by Australian forces in Afghanistan, saying a fraction of that would be better invested by sending 50 of the province's best high school graduates to Australia to get a degree.
Attending a local boys' school with her, it is clear Kakar has lost none of her zest for teaching. Despite being the keynote speaker, she arrives and is soon marshalling 200 boys, barking orders at them to get all the classroom chairs outside in a neat fashion for the outdoor assembly.
"It's like water is to fish," she says later of what teaching means to her.
The school, once refurbished by Australian forces and money, now has only has about half its windows intact after a suicide bomber killed himself in the adjacent governor's compound in July. While building and refurbishing schools is generally done by foreigners, maintenance and upkeep is the responsibility of the Afghan government, and when funds do trickle from Kabul to Oruzgan there is usually some leakage along the way.
Yet despite the hardship and what at times must seem like an insurmountable challenge, Kakar remains hopeful that the situation can improve. And, perhaps most encouragingly, her optimism is winning over the people of Tarin Kowt. When she first arrived and started marching down to the bazaar, people would snigger at the woman who was shopping alone and with most of her face showing.
"At first, they were turning their heads and whispering about me. But now they know what I am doing they have said they will stand behind and protect me."
Some refer to her as being like a "kind mother"; all mention her hair and agree that unlike her predecessor she is committed to helping the province's youth and not just herself.
"I am sure it's her fearlessness and preparedness to talk face-to-face with people in places and communities that others won't go to or bother with which is a key reason for her success," says West Australian Labor senator Louise Pratt, who has helped Kakar since the Afghan woman first arrived in Australia and began working with the Afghan refugee community.
"She could certainly return to a much easier life in Australia with her children and grandchildren, who I know miss her very much.
"[But] her deep identification with the situation of her own people in Afghanistan is something she could not turn away from."
Tajwar Kakar says God will decide if and when she leaves Oruzgan and return to Perth. Meanwhile, she shows no signs of slowing down.
"Whoever allows love into their hearts and loves the country and is interested in their work every day, their mind will get younger and they will want to work."
Her goal is to help create the Afghanistan she remembers as a child.
"I have seen good days of my country. Right now the youth haven't seen anything."
Additional reporting by Nooruddin Bakshi in Kabul.