Although official results have not yet been announced, Afghan officials are praising the recent parliamentary elections as a breakthrough for women.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdulllah and Minister for Women's Affairs Masuda Jalal say last month's parliamentary elections were a major step for women's rights in their country.

At a Washington forum Monday sponsored by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, Ms. Jalal said female candidates fared well in the elections, and women turned out in large numbers to vote.

"The people of Afghanistan's reaction to women empowerment, women's leadership, and promotion of gender equality is positive.  They proved [that] in the parliamentary elections," she said.

Elections were held September 18 for the new lower house of parliament, called the Wolesi Jirga, and 34 provincial councils.  There is a minimum of 68 seats reserved for women in the 249-seat parliament. 

Ms. Jalal said voters in many areas cast ballots for women, because they had no ties to the civil war and the harsh rule of the Taleban.

"They appreciate that women did not have any hand in the problems of three decades," she explained.  "And they are trusting women.  I think they are welcoming women's leadership in the country."

Although the Taleban was ousted in 2001, Afghanistan remains a deeply traditional, male-dominated society.  Tribal leaders in rural areas are male.

Men also control the booming narcotics trade, which has hit record highs since the Taleban left.  Afghanistan now produces an estimated 87 per cent of the world's heroin, and drug money fuels much of the Afghan economy.

Foreign Minister Abdulllah said the government of President Hamid Karzai is committed to eradicating the drug trade, but admits the task has proved more daunting than expected.

"We are dealing with it at a time when we have to deal with all other issues," said Mr. Abdullah.  "For any other country it has taken a long time.  [But] Afghanistan, since there has been a lot of progress in the political process, there has been progress in other fields, so it is expected to deal with it overnight.  It's not possible, I think it's not feasible."

Ms. Jalal says Afghanistan is so poor that many farmers have no recourse but to turn to poppy cultivation, which produces the opium used to make heroin, to earn a livelihood for their families.  She says they need to be provided an alternative.

"That's why a lot needs to be done in terms of livelihood replacement to cover that gap that could be created if we take it completely from their [hands], the production.  So that's why it's difficult to fight against," she explained.

Foreign analysts have said that the new parliament is expected to have some major drug dealers within its ranks.