Marnie Gustavson lives and works in a tree-shaded Kabul compound near the site of a triple bombing two weeks ago that killed dozens of school girls.
Gustavson, a native of Western Washington, has spent the past 15 years in Afghanistan as executive director of PARSA, which employs a largely Afghan staff in aid work focused on women and youth.
One of these employees lives in the neighborhood where the May 8 bombings took place, which includes many Hazara, a minority group of Shiites that have long been subject to prejudice and persecution. A few days after the carnage, she gave an anguished assessment of her family’s plight.
“Every day, when my children leave for school, they hug me and say they hope they will be back at noon,” the woman told Gustavson. “How can we live this way? How can I protect my children from this?”
This attack killed more than 80 and was one of the bloodiest in a year that has seen an upsurge of violence as U.S. troops pull out of the country by 9/11. After that date, Gustavson and her husband Norm plan to stay in Afghanistan, and continue PARSA’s work.
“It’s hard. The situation changes day-to-day,” Gustavson said. “There’s very little way to predict what’s going to happen next.”
Another Afghanistan aid group with roots in the Puget Sound region, Seattle-based Sahar, also expects to maintain operations after the U.S. military exit.
Since 2001, Sahar — and its predecessor organization Ayni Education — have been involved in the renovation and construction of 25 schools for girls in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh Province. This spring, Sahar is halfway through fundraising for one of its most ambitious projects yet, building a $1.5 million first-of-a kind public boarding school for girls in the province’s capital city of Mazar-e-Sharif .
Ginna Brelsford, the group’s Seattle-based executive director, said that Sahar, which has long operated in low-key fashion outside the umbrella of U.S. military protection, is nimble enough to survive.
“We have had strategies planned for a very long time if the Taliban come back in full force, and scenarios for really everything in between,” Brelsford said.
The Taliban largely banned girls from schools in the 1990s when they ruled the country, and they have often ended schooling for girls over the age of 12 in areas now under their control.
“Thus far, the Taliban’s effect on girls’ education in areas under its control has
ranged from total shutdown to negotiated agreements on which subjects are taught,” according to a U.S. National Intelligence Council memorandum released this spring.
The Taliban also have been accused by the U.S. and Afghan governments of killings that have claimed the lives of journalists, teachers, politicians and other civic leaders this year.
The Taliban deny involvement in many of the civilian attacks, including the May 8 bombings in Kabul that butchered the school-age girls.
Some analysts say this assault on Hazara youth has been the work of a splinter group aligned with the Islamic State group, which also has a presence in Afghanistan.
Regardless of who was responsible, Gustavson said the May 8 bombings stoked widespread anger among Kabul residents at the inability of both Taliban and the Afghan government to prevent such attacks.
All of this creates big concerns about what would happen if the Taliban succeed in their quest, either through an ongoing military offensive or negotiations, to once again become the nation’s dominant political power.
“One son says, ‘Come home, Mom,’ but it’s a natural response. My family is extraordinarily supportive,” said Gustavson, who this month returned to Port Orchard, and is currently visiting with her four adult children and mother.
Decades of work
Both PARSA and Sahar got their start helping educate Afghan girls.
PARSA (which stands for Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan) was founded in 1996 by Mary MacMakin, an American physical therapist who worked with Afghan staff to organize secret classes for up to 1,200 girls in more than 40 home schools during the Taliban rule.
Gustavson spent part of her youth in Afghanistan as her father — Frank Hartung — left Seattle to teach at an international school in Kabul. After the fall of the Taliban, she returned several times to Afghanistan, initially finding lodging with MacMakin, and eventually taking over PARSA, located on part of a 20-acre campus.
Currently, PARSA has a staff of some 125 Afghans and a budget of $2 million from U.S. and European governments as well as private donors, according to Gustavson.
One big effort has an Afghan scouting program that now encompasses 73 troops in 18 provinces that offer activities for both boys and girls and trains scoutmasters in other parts of the country. PARSA organized troops within orphanages and sought to help draw youth away from extremist ideologies.
The work also includes leadership mentoring for 65 youth in Kabul (many of whom come from the Hazara neighborhood where the bombing occurred) and a residence for women who have suffered from domestic violence. PARSA also operates a Trade Afghan program that helps women market their products.
Sahar traces its founding to Julia Bolz, a Washington human rights lawyer who after the fall of the Taliban spent part of each year in Afghanistan and part of her time in the United States fundraising to build schools for girls.
In recent years, Sahar has had an annual budget of about $500,000 drawn from private donors. The organization, working closely with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, builds schools, training teachers and offering computer literacy courses.
Sahar also has funded after-hour classes that run against the Taliban orthodoxy. One looks at the benefits of young girls delaying marriage and others help men become “gender allies” in support of more equality for women and children, according to Brelsford, the executive director.
In another new front, Sahar has sponsored a curriculum to help children deal with the psychological trauma of war.
“We have moved into everything from poetry to journal writing to mediation so people can feel empowered to get out of despair,” said Brelsford.
A fragile future
The work undertaken by PARSA and Sahar has been part of a broader push for greater equality for women that unfolded as the U.S. fought the Taliban.
An analysis by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that the American taxpayers spent more than $787.4 million on activities primarily intended to support Afghan girls and women, a sliver of the more than $134 billion in federal spending on Afghanistan reconstruction.
The report, released in February, found that as many as 3.5 million girls — representing about 40% of all students — were enrolled in schools. The actual attendance is probably much lower as some schools have closed in areas under Taliban control and some students may have been discouraged to come to classes. Still, this represents a big improvement from the era of Taliban governance.
Unprecedented numbers of women also hold public office in Afghanistan, and joined the civil service, media and businesses, according to the report.
The report called these changes “indisputable gains.” Yet they are “fragile and significant barriers to progress persist.” At this “critical moment” it is important that the U.S. “continue to support women’s rights and gender equality,” the report stated.
By the time the report was released, the Trump administration had already concluded an agreement with the Taliban that makes no mention of women, or respect for their rights to go school. That document called for the U.S. withdrawal to be completed by May 1, which Biden earlier this spring announced would be pushed back to September.
Direct talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan could provide another potential for women’s rights to be discussed. But those talks are now stalled, and it’s unclear when — or if — they will start up again.
In the meantime, the Afghan American Foundation, in a “Call to Action” released earlier this month, accused the Biden administration of being “dismissive of the quickly devolving situation in Afghanistan for children, women and minorities.”
That document, which was endorsed by Sahar, urged a series of actions that include U.S. sanctions on Taliban leaders and a freezing of bank accounts until they agree to a permanent cease-fire.
The document also called for the Biden administration to support “in deed, not only in rhetoric” women’s rights and girls education.
In a response to an inquiry from The Seattle Times, a U.S. Agency for International Development spokesperson said, “We will use our full diplomatic, economic and humanitarian tool kit to support the future the Afghan people want, including gains made by Afghan women and girls.”
In recent weeks, the Taliban have been intensifying a spring offensive against Afghan government forces to gain control of more territory.
Gustavson says that she thinks it is unlikely the Taliban would be able to use their military might to capture Kabul, but the prospects for an intensifying civil war appear more likely.
Still, she hopes that a coalition government might yet be formed, and that some form of peace, however fragile, might take hold. And she draws strength from the young generation of Afghans she works with at PARSA, some of whom have reached out in the Hazara community to talk with other youth about the bombings.
Last week, while she visited in Washington state, these young mentors — girls and boys — gathered outside the PARSA office. There, they planted a rose bush and a conifer tree in a memorial service for the May 8 victims, and then gathered inside to talk some more.
Editor’s note: Hal Bernton reported on Afghan youth during two reporting trips to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2012.
Correction: A caption on photo of a school built in 2015 by Sahar, in this story’s gallery, included incorrect information and has been corrected.