The world has watched in horror as increasingly chaotic scenes emerge from Afghanistan. One of the last places not yet controlled by the Taliban is Kabul’s international airport, which is now protected by the U.S. military with the goal of reopening — to the relief and evacuation flights that have been circling Afghan airspace for days, unable to land.
Crowds of mostly Afghan men have swarmed the airport’s tarmac, some frantically clinging to the side of U.S. military planes as they prepared to take off, some falling to their deaths. The streets are overrun with thousands of thieves and assailants recently released from prison. Desperately trying to depart from that same airport is a group of young Afghan girls in grave danger: the Afghan Girls Robotics Team. There are reports of not only violence, but also that water has been running out at the airport. These girls and their coaches have been turned away from ticketed flights, and are waiting, now, for a breakthrough.
You may have heard of them. The team — from the provincial capital of Herat and made up of 25 girls ages 12 to 18 and their mentors — overcame war, terrorism and gender discrimination to emerge as a symbol of a new Afghanistan, one that champions girls’ education.
In recent years, everyone from senators and Trump administration leaders to the Council on Foreign Relations has hosted them and celebrated their achievements. The girls’ faces were even painted on the walls of the U.S. Embassy gates in Kabul.
But that very visibility and celebration by U.S. aid and diplomatic agencies is what puts many members of the team in danger today — and why U.S. leaders must urgently take action to help them leave Afghanistan. And protection is even more vital for those team members who have decided to stay, and who the United States must also advocate for.
Over the past days and weeks, we’ve received terrified messages from women in Afghanistan, begging for help. There have been reports of women no longer able to leave their homes without a Taliban-required “mahram,” or male guardian. In the team’s hometown of Herat, women have posted on Twitter that they were allegedly turned away from universities by Taliban forces, who said only men can now enter.
The team members’ situation mirrors that of girls and women across Afghanistan. The progress likely lost is significant: Over the last two decades, Afghan women have joined society as students, teachers, government officials, police officers and business owners — with the 2004 constitution enshrining that “citizens of Afghanistan, man and woman, have equal rights and duties before the law.” In 2003, the new government ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which mandates that countries incorporate gender equality into their domestic legal codes. And despite shoddy record-keeping, most experts agree millions of girls who would have received no schooling under previous Taliban rule have now benefited from some education.
For girls such as those on the Afghan Girls Robotic Team who have decided they must leave their country, their safety and future rests on countries such as the United States getting them out. In the sea of human despair playing out across social media as well as television, they are one story that should show what the United States and other global leaders must do urgently: Create new, accelerated policies to allow Afghans such as them to either emigrate here to pursue their education, or have safe passage through the United States as an interim stop to resettlement to Canada or other nations willing to welcome them.
They want to continue to be educated. They want to continue to be the future of Afghanistan. If White House leaders can’t even find seats on a humanitarian airlift for a small group of girls and teachers that the United States held up as examples of the progress made possible by U.S. support, it will prove that Afghan women were simply expendable collateral in a political game. Will the United States urgently do more than just paint these girls’ faces on the walls of their abandoned Kabul embassy?