The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Afghan politician spent her life working for women’s rights. She barely made it out of the country.

Fawzia Koofi, a prominent women's rights activist and former member of parliament, sits in her office in Kabul on March 4, 2020. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Fawzia Koofi spent years fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan. She survived at least two assassination attempts and then last year sat face-to-face with Taliban leaders to negotiate the country’s future.

But the former Afghan legislator, who once hoped to run for president, finally left Kabul on Monday night on one of the last evacuation flights, despite the Taliban militants who had placed her under house arrest — and who now control her home.

Hours after landing in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, the outspoken Taliban critic said Afghanistan feels unsafe now but pledged to return one day.

“It was heartbreaking to see how everything collapsed,” she said in a BBC radio interview Tuesday.

“I was afraid of being oppressed, of staying under house arrest, not that those people would kill me,” Koofi added. “I never wanted to leave. … To leave in a situation where you think thousands, maybe millions of people, are desperate and hopeless … to leave those people, emotionally, I felt so inappropriate.”

Koofi, born in a remote province in the northeast, was the first girl in her family to go to school and went on to become the first female deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament.

Last year, she was one of a few women chosen to take part in the U.S.-backed government’s attempt to negotiate with the Taliban. The two sides held talks after the Trump administration clinched a deal with the Islamist militants that spelled out the terms of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In recent weeks, Koofi joined the chorus of criticism over how the United States handled the pullout of its troops without a political deal.

“After 20 yrs of US/NATO presence & all promises made to our civil society, women &youth, that chapter has abruptly closed,” she wrote on Tuesday.

Just 10 days earlier, she had said she had no plans to leave the country, but now the widowed mother is with her two daughters, who flew to Qatar on earlier flights.

It was not immediately clear how she escaped the Taliban fighters who stood guard outside her house, or whether she was just allowed to leave. After she arrived in Doha, she thanked the Qatari assistant foreign minister, who had first broken the news of her safe arrival.

Qatar, which has long had close ties with the Taliban and hosted the negotiations with the U.S. and Afghan governments, played an outsize role during the frenzied weeks of evacuation. The Qatari ambassador led a series of rescue missions through the city to get people to the airport.

Koofi made it out of Kabul just as the final American plane left the airfield with the last remaining troops, as the United States ended its longest war with the evacuation of some 110,000 foreigners and Afghans.

Afghanistan’s minister for women also said Tuesday that she had escaped. Hasina Safi told Australia’s ABC News that she hid her face to get past the militants and into the Kabul airport during the final days of the evacuation — in what she called the “most difficult decision” in her life.

Many more did not make it out. They include lower-profile Afghans who may face reprisal for their civil society work or their ties to NATO forces during the conflict.

The Taliban’s comeback sparked fear of a return to the harsh days of its rule from 1996 to 2001, especially for women, who once faced beatings for going outside alone.

The Taliban was last in power from 1996 to 2001. With the fundamentalist group taking over again, Afghanistan could be a “humanitarian crisis in the making.” (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Ishaan Tharoor/The Washington Post)

Koofi called on foreign governments to ensure that the Taliban doesn’t rule in the same way again, warning that the country could turn into an extremist sanctuary if abandoned.

“If the world thinks this is not their business, that this is an Afghan war … trust me, sooner or later, it will be at their borders again,” she said.

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