26 Members of Afghanistan's National Girls Soccer Team In Hiding As Rescue Efforts Failed

The Afghanistan national girls soccer team has gone into hiding after evacuation efforts by the U.S. and additional countries came to a close this week, leaving the lives of 26 team members in danger from the Taliban for their decision to play a sport, the Associated Press reported.

Robert McCreary, a former congressional chief of staff and White House official for President George W. Bush, said that there were at least five attempts to rescue the athletes in recent days that failed.

One of those attempts was foiled by the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport last week, which killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members when the girls were "footsteps from freedom," said Farkhunda Muhtaj, the captain for the Afghanistan women's national team who lives in Canada.

Most members of the team were evacuated to Australia last week, the AP reported. The remaining members are being moved around in the country for their safety with the hope that U.S. military, intelligence officials, congressmen and humanitarian groups can organize a route to safety from the country.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Kabul Bombing Aftermath
A rescue effort for the Afghanistan national girls soccer team was foiled by last week's suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 twin suicide bombs, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops, at Kabul airport on August 27, 2021. Wakil Koshar/AFP via Getty Images

"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," McCreary said. "We need to do everything that we can to protect them, to get them to a safe situation."

The airport suicide bombing was carried out by Islamic State militants who are sworn rivals of the Taliban. The U.S. military has acknowledged that during the airlift, it was coordinating to some extent with the Taliban who set up checkpoints around the airport for crowd control and in the final days facilitated the evacuation of American citizens.

The Taliban have tried to present a new image, promising amnesty to former opponents and saying they would form an inclusive government. Many Afghans don't trust those promises, fearing the Taliban will quickly resort to the brutal tactics of their 1996-2001 rule, including barring girls and women from schools and jobs. The Taliban have been vague on their policy toward women so far, but have not yet issued sweeping repressive edicts.

But the girls, ages 14-16, and their families also could be targeted by the Taliban — not just because women and girls are forbidden to play sports, but because they were advocates for girls and active members of their communities, said Farkhunda Muhtaj, who is captain of the Afghanistan women's national team and lives in Canada.

"They are devastated. They're hopeless, considering the situation they're in," said Muhtaj, who keeps in contact with the girls and urges them to stay calm.

Complicating the rescue effort is the size of the group — 133 people, including the 26 youth team members as well as adults and other children, including infants. Many don't have passports or other necessary documentation to board flights from Kabul.

McCreary said the mission — called Operation Soccer Balls — is working with other countries, with the hope the girls will eventually settle in the U.S. He said Australia, France and Qatar have expressed interest in helping. He also urged the Taliban to ease the exit for the group, 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 a lot of offers to take them in and host them," McCreary said.

Former U.S. women's national soccer team captain Julie Foudy, a two-time World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, said 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," she said.

Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran who founded Dallas-based DeliverFund, a nonprofit that's secured housing for 50 Afghan families, said he understood that the U.S. was focused on relocating Afghans who helped American forces, but that others need help, too.

"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."

McCreary said the rescue team feels personally responsible because the U.S. helped the girls go to school and play soccer.

"We need to protect them now," he said. "They should not be in harm's way for things that we helped them do."

Taliban Fighters
The Afghanistan national girl's soccer team is in hiding from the Taliban after failed attempts to evacuate the athletes from the country. A convoy of Taliban fighters patrol along a street in Kabul on September 2, 2021. Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images