Effort underway to rescue girls soccer team from Afghanistan

They move from place to place in a desperate attempt to escape the Taliban – girls whose lives are in danger simply because they choose a sport they loved.

An international attempt to evacuate members of the Afghan national girls’ soccer team along with dozens of family members and soccer association staff suffered a devastating blow last week after 169 Afghans and 13 US soldiers were killed in a devastating airlift in a suicide bombing at Kabul airport .

Now the girls are terrified and desperate about whether a dispersed coalition of former US military and intelligence officials, congressmen, US allies, humanitarian groups and the captain of the Afghan women’s national team can get them and their loved ones to safety.

Members of the Afghan girls’ youth soccer team and their families in Kabul on Sunday.AP

“They are just amazing young women who should be playing in the back yard, on the swing, playing with their friends, and here they are in a very bad situation because all they do is play football,” said Robert McCreary. a former Chief of Staff of Congress and White House official under President George W. Bush who worked with special forces in Afghanistan.

“We have to do everything we can to protect them, to put them in a safe situation.”

The suicide attack on the airport was carried out by Islamic State militants who are sworn rivals of the Taliban.

The U.S. military has admitted that it coordinated to some extent with the Taliban during the airlift, established checkpoints around the airport to control crowds, and facilitated the evacuation of American citizens in recent days.

The Taliban tried to re-image it by promising amnesty to former opponents and saying they would form an inclusive government.

But many Afghans do not trust these promises because they fear the Taliban will quickly resort to the brutal tactics of their rule from 1996-2001, including excluding girls and women from schools and jobs. The Taliban have so far been vague in their women’s policy, but have not yet issued any comprehensive repressive edicts.

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Most of the members of the Afghan women’s team formed in 2007 were evacuated to Australia last week.

But girls between the ages of 14 and 16 and their families could also be targeted by the Taliban – not only because women and girls are banned from sport, but because they campaigned for girls and active members of their communities, said Farkhunda Muhtaj. is the captain of the Afghan women’s national team and lives in Canada.

“You are devastated. They are hopeless in the face of the situation they are in, ”said Muhtaj, who is in contact with the girls and asks them to remain calm.

There have been at least five failed attempts to rescue the girls in the past few days as they were moved for their safety, McCreary and Muhtaj said. They were “in the footsteps of freedom” when the suicide bombing occurred, said Muhtaj.

Complicating the rescue operation is the size of the group – 133 people, including the 26 members of the youth team, as well as adults and other children, including toddlers. Many do not have passports or other necessary documents to board flights from Kabul.

McCreary said the mission – called Operation Soccer Balls – is working with other countries in the hope that the girls will eventually settle in the US. He also urged the Taliban to facilitate the group’s exit, saying it would create goodwill.

“If we can put a protective bubble around these women and young girls … I really believe the world will stand up and take notice and have many offers to take them in and take them in,” said McCreary.

Members of the Afghan Girls Youth Football Team and their families.AP

Former US women’s national soccer team captain Julie Foudy, two-time world and two-time Olympic champion, said the rescue effort “increases the visibility of these young women and their importance for equality and democracy and all the things we value in this country.”

“So many of us who, as athletes – as human beings – can stand up and say, ‘This is a moment when we have to come together and do the right thing,’ then we should definitely do it,” she said.

Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran who founded the Dallas-based DeliverFund, a nonprofit that protects 50 Afghan families, said he understood that the US is focused on relocating Afghans who are American Have helped armed forces but also need help from others.

“What about the little girl who just wants to kick a ball in a field and wants to do it well and has worked hard for it at a world-class level, who is suddenly in danger just because she just wanted to do sports? and had a passion for this sport? ”he said.

“The only thing you did wrong in the eyes of the Taliban … is the fact that you were born girls and had the audacity to dream of doing something.”

McCreary said the rescue team feels personally responsible for helping girls go to school and play soccer.

“We have to protect them now,” he said. “You shouldn’t be at risk for things we’ve helped you with.”

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