Terrified teen soccer players in the Afghanistan national girls’ team had been “footsteps from freedom” from the Taliban thanks to a US-led mission to save them — only to get thwarted by last week’s devastating airport suicide attack.
The girls, aged 14-16, had tried to flee with their families at least five times thanks to a high-level international effort, including help from congressmen and former US military and intelligence officials.
The mission, codenamed “Operation Soccer Balls,” appeared on the cusp of finally scoring last week — until the ISIS attack that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US service members at Kabul airport, The Associated Press said.
Now that the West has ended mercy flights, the girls have been forced into hiding from the Taliban, who barred girls from going to school during its brutal previous regime from 1996-2001.
“They are devastated,” Farkhunda Muhtaj, the captain of Afghanistan women’s national team, told the AP of the team she said had been mere “footsteps from freedom” at the time.
“They’re hopeless, considering the situation they’re in,” Muhtaj said.
“Operation Soccer Balls” also involves congressmen as well as former US military and intelligence officials. Members of the women’s team — most of whom were evacuated to Australia last week — are also helping.
Former congressional chief Robert McCreary, who was a White House official under President George W. Bush, said the rescuers feel personally responsible because the US helped the girls go to school and play soccer.
“We need to protect them now,” he told the AP. “They should not be in harm’s way for things that we helped them do.
“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 said.
“We need to do everything that we can to protect them, to get them to a safe situation.”
Australia, France and Qatar have expressed interest in helping, and McReary said he has urged the Taliban to ease the girls’ exit as a symbol of 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 a lot of offers to take them in and host them,” McCreary said.
The mission proved problematic in part because of the size of the group, which totaled 133 people, including the 26 youth team members. Many don’t have passports or other necessary documentation to board flights, the AP said.
Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran who founded a Dallas-based nonprofit that’s secured housing for 50 Afghan families, said the situation highlights that it is not just those who helped the West deserving to be saved.
“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 said.
“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,” he said.
With Post wires