Kids Are, and Always Were, the Collateral Damage in Afghanistan

The children in Afghanistan were promised education, economic support, and a democratic way of life that has all but evaporated.

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Over the past few days, the Afghanistan government has fallen to the Taliban. How quickly that fall has happened has been described as “stunning.”

The scenes of people running down airport runways, attempting to flee the Taliban and falling to their deaths from clinging to the sides of U.S. Air Force planes are indeed shocking. But the stories of women, girls, and children worried about their futures and looking for ways out of the country are, for long-time child advocates and educators within Afghanistan, sadly predictable. What cannot be forgotten in the chaos and tragedy is the endangered future of Afghan kids, girls in particular, and the missteps that brought about this situation.

Over the past two decades, the United States spent some $1 billion ostensibly educating kids in Afghanistan, building schools, investing in books, modernizing buildings, and more. Reporting from Buzzfeed in 2015 found that many of the schools and success stories used by the U.S. government to justify its long-term presence in the country were either inadequate, bombed-out, or made-up.

American efforts to advance the education of Afghan children were, per Buzzfeed, was “massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper… [an effort] allowed by corruption and by short-term political and military goals. The U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype,” the reporting concludes.

By 2015, one-tenth of the 50 American-funded schools in war zones no longer existed, were not operating, or were never built in the first place. Girls were overcounted in official enrollment records by 40 percent. USAID claimed it had refurbished or built an ever-shifting number of schools, and those they actually built often resembled abandoned buildings, didn’t have running water, or were otherwise unsafe to operate in.

By 2011, more than 1,100 schools that were reported to be active were not. In some cases, the money meant to fund schools reportedly went to the Taliban.

Of course, some US-funded schools were a success, and they did bring education to millions of Afghan kids. However, these successes were largely confined to major cities like Kabul, and now that the Taliban have taken over, whatever gains that were made in 20 years of so-called “nation-building” are primed to disappear.

With the Taliban in power, the girls who remain in Afghanistan will see their futures dramatically limited. Recent UNICEF numbers show that things already weren’t great: 1 in 3 girls are married before their 18th birthday, only 1 in 5 girls under 15 years old are literate, and a reported 3.7 million kids, most of them girls, are out of school. Children continue to suffer from malnutrition, child morbidity, anemia, and disabilities after 20 years of occupation by the U.S. and its allies.

It’s tempting to look to the hopeful stories of kids benefiting from educational investment in recent years like the Afghan Dreamers. The all-girl robotics team spent much of the pandemic trying to build a fully robotic, mechanized, hand-operated ventilator for COVID-19 patients in a country that only had 200 working ventilators for a population of 35 million.

The Afghan Dreamers are known internationally for their robotics skills. Twenty of its members, teenage girls from 12 to 18, have won top robotics awards in international competitions. But as of this morning, the girls were “desperate” to escape Afghanistan as the Taliban took control. A human rights lawyer named Kimberly Motley took to Canadian television to plead with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau to grant them refugee status.

“We are literally begging the Canadian government,” Motley said. “We’re begging Prime Minister Trudeau…to please allow them to come to Canada.” Various news reports of families hiding from Taliban members, fearing death, have begun to come forward; these stories will only continue.

A mother in upstate New York spoke to WNYT yesterday about trying desperately to get her four children out of the country. Suneeta fled the country in 2018 after her four children were kidnapped by her husband’s brother. They have since escaped, and she left Afghanistan in an attempt to get the United States’ help in saving her children.

Suneeta’s husband disappeared in 2013 and was believed to have been abducted by the Taliban due to his work as an interpreter for the U.S. military. Her children were approved to come to the United States over a year ago. They have not made it.

“I am here stressing and thinking…about my kids and thinking how the U.S. government can’t help me or my kids when their father did help and work with them for years,” Suneeta said to the local publication.

On August 13, 2021, NPR ran an interview with Rangina Hamidi, until recently Afghanistan’s education minister, who as of last press time was based in Kabul.

She said of her 5th-grade daughter: “I was looking at them, they’re oblivious to what is happening in Afghanistan, but me, as a mother sitting in my home feeling the unease, it struck me to think and look at them and say, ‘God forbid, but something can happen any minute.’ And these joyous little girls playing in the garden, [their lives] may end in a second. That’s what millions and millions of Afghans, unfortunately, face every day.”

As the Taliban take over the country, they are already leaving their mark. Early reports say that Taliban fighters have been giving house visits in some places and compiling lists of girls aged 12 to 45 “for their fighters to forcibly marry,” per Bloomberg. An 11th-grade girl named Wahida Sadeqi told The New York Times: “I am so worried about my future. It seems so murky. If the Taliban takes over, I lose my identity,” in April 2021 as the U.S. prepared for withdrawal. Her fears now appear likely to become reality.

The bottom line is that the United States failed the people of Afghanistan, and those failures were felt particularly by its children. A mountain of suffering awaits those left behind for the foreseeable future as a generation sees the futures they dreamed of fail to become reality. If only the world had given them a chance.

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