I really feel helpless, afraid for little Afghan ladies whom I as soon as rescued

No sooner had the Biden administration announced in April that the US would withdraw troops from Afghanistan than I worried about the fate of the girls I had met there almost a decade ago.

When I saw news material on Sunday that the Taliban were turning the nation into total chaos and the government in Kabul collapsed, my fear of losing the rights of women and girls escalated tenfold.

In 2012 I served as Head of the Cultural Support Team (CST) alongside Green Berets in Combat Outpost Herrera in the Paktia province on the Afghan-Pakistani border. These teams – two female soldiers and an interpreter – belong to special units specifically responsible for interacting with local women and children, as this was culturally inappropriate for these all-male elite special units.

As CSTs, part of our job has been to identify the root causes of instability in villages near our outpost and implement security, government and development measures to make these areas safer.

During our time in Afghanistan, my teammate and I were able to meet and work with local male school teachers. We worked in an ethnic and tribal Pashtun district where the villagers wanted to educate all of their children, so they quietly ran schools for girls. The consequences for teachers or villages who let girls go to school have been dire. During one of my earliest intelligence reports on local threats and Taliban activity in the region, our CST was shown videos of the Taliban kidnapping teachers, taking them to barren land, and shooting them with a recoilless rifle that cut the bodies in half.

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Even so, the villagers in our district continued to teach their daughters.

To ensure everyone’s safety, classes were held behind walled complexes and men from the village joined the local police so they could keep an eye on their children. When they heard reports of Taliban activity, they canceled school and sent the girls home.

Over time, our CST learned, among other things, that school supplies had been stolen and confiscated by Taliban troops along the Pakistani border. We notified the Green Berets, the Afghan Special Forces team partner and the local police. Together, the men quickly introduced additional security checks and patrols along the border, which finally made it possible to finally supply the schools with supplies.

Together with our Afghan Special Forces team, our CST was able to coordinate with an Afghan non-profit organization that provided the schools in the district with Pashtu picture books and teacher manuals. When the books arrived, each little girl got her own set to keep.

Former Army Captain Jackie Munn shows girls a picture book when she led a culture support team in Afghanistan in 2012.

The children could hardly contain their excitement. Many had never owned a book. Some waved their books in the air, overjoyed with their happiness. Others opened it immediately, fascinated by the colorful illustrations. Watching their joy was inspiring.

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We sat on the cool mud floor with a small group of girls and my interpreter, taking turns pointing to different animal pictures on the pages. I practiced my Pashto and then taught them some English. The girls listened with big eyes and smiles, completely removed.

Now that the Taliban have regained control of the country, I fear there will be no more dancing, picture books or girls’ schools.

These little girls are teenagers now and I worry about their future. I worry that many will be forced into marriages at a very young age. I worry about their lack of opportunities and education now that the Taliban have returned. I am concerned about the violence many face.

As a veteran watching the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan, I feel helpless. But as I advocate and support our Afghan allies with Visa and point concerned family members and friends to humanitarian aid agencies, I hope these small kind gestures will have far-reaching implications.

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I also wonder if any of these girls still have their picture books. I wonder if one day they will share them with their own children and teach their daughters to read.

Hopefully. I hope these stories and these books will live on for generations. And that more and more girls are leafing through their pages – an apparently small gesture that has meanwhile become in defiance.

Jackie Munn, a nurse and freelance writer in the Washington, DC area, graduated from West Point and served with the Green Berets in Afghanistan.

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