Desperate international efforts to get the Afghan girls’ soccer team out of the country continue after the ISIS-K bombing last week cut off their route to the airport, temporarily stopping their bid to get themselves and their families out of the war-torn country.
They girls and their families are now moving from place to place, trying to keep out of the eye of the Taliban as they continue to attempt to find a way out of Afghanistan.
So far, a total of five separate attempts to extricate them and soccer federation officials have met with bitter failure.
Now, they take their meager belongings from place to place, hoping the hastily-assembled group of former U.S. military and intelligence officials, congressmen, U.S. allies, humanitarian groups can somehow, some way, get them and their loved ones to a safe place.
Robert McCreary, a former congressional chief of staff and White House official under President George W. Bush, and who has worked with special forces in Afghanistan, is part of that group.
“They’re just unbelievable young ladies who should be playing in the backyard, playing on the swing set, playing with their friends, and here they’re in a very bad situation for doing nothing more than playing soccer,” he stated to the Associated Press.
“We need to do everything that we can to protect them, to get them to a safe situation.”
Now that Taliban leaders seemingly understand that the horror that they inflicted on their nation from 1996 to 2001, during their previous regime, has created revulsion abroad, they are attempting to soften their image, assuring women publicly that they are free to go to work and school as before.
Afghan girls soccer team just doing what Americans encouraged them to do – attend school, play sports
Most Afghans are justifiably suspicious of those claims, fearing they will soon return to the brutality of their old ways, including banning girls and women from schools and jobs. The Taliban have been perhaps intentionally vague regarding their policy toward women so far, but have not yet issued any sweeping edicts restricting what females can do.
The majority of the members of Afghanistan’s women’s soccer team, which once traveled abroad extensively, were evacuated to Australia last week. The adult team was formed in 2007.
But these young girls, aged just 14-16 — along with their families — could also be targeted by the Taliban. Not only because women and girls are forbidden to play sports, according to strict Islamic interpretations, but also because they were advocates for girls and active members of their communities.
This is what Farkhunda Muhtaj, the captain of the Afghanistan women’s national team, who now lives in Canada, believes could happen.
“They are devastated. They’re hopeless, considering the situation they’re in,” Muhtaj says. She is constantly in contact with the girls, urging them to stay calm despite the complete upheaval in their lives and the desperate situation in which they find themselves.
This most recent time they almost made it out of the country, Muhtaj says, they were “footsteps from freedom” when the suicide bombing took place.
“They had the audacity to dream of doing something”
Making the effort extraordinarily complex one is the size of the group. It’s not just a handful of young girls in question. The 26 young players are trying to make it out of Afghanistan along with their families — amounting to a group of 133 people, including infants.
According to MCreary, many do not have passports or any other necessary documentation to board any regular international flight out of the country.
McCreary told interviewers from the Associated Press that the mission — dubbed “Operation Soccer Balls” — is collaborating with other countries, with the hope that the girls will eventually settle in the United States.
So far, Operation Soccer Balls has had contact from Australia, France and Qatar in the effort to get the girls and their families out of the country. McCreary additionally urged the Taliban to ease the group’s travel out of the country, pointing out that this would create goodwill all around the world.
“We need to protect them now”
“If we can put a protective bubble around these women and young girls … I really believe the world will stand up and and take notice and have a lot of offers to take them in and host them,” McCreary stated.
Julie Foudy, a two-time World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, who captained the US national women’s soccer team, said that the rescue efforts “raise the visibility of these young women and their importance to equality and democracy and all these things that we value in this country.
“As many of us who can stand up as female athletes — as humans — and say, ‘This is a moment we need to come together and do what’s right,’ then we absolutely should,” Foudy added.
Another former military man, Nic McKinley, who once worked for the CIA and Air Force, founded the Dallas-based DeliverFund nonprofit. That organization has been responsible for arranging housing for housing for a total of 50 Afghan families. McKinley says he understands that the U.S. is focused on relocating the many Afghans who helped American forces while they were there, but that other Afghans need help as well.
“What about the little girl who just wants to kick a ball around a field and wants to do that well, and has worked hard to do that at a world class level, who finds herself suddenly in jeopardy only because she just wanted to play a sport and had a passion for playing that sport?” he asks rhetorically.
“The only thing that they had done wrong in the eyes of the Taliban … is the fact that they were born girls and they had the audacity to dream of doing something.”
McCreary said the team devoted to the girls’ rescue feels personally responsible because it was the U.S. that enabled the girls go to school and play soccer in the first place during their time in the country.
“We need to protect them now,” he states. “They should not be in harm’s way for things that we helped them do.”