Early Sunday morning, Marnie Gustavson left a compound in Kabul, Afghanistan, where for the past 15 years she has lived and worked, leading humanitarian group PARSA.
She caught one of the last scheduled flights out of the country, en route to her native Washington state. That same day, the Taliban moved into Kabul to cap their takeover of Afghanistan after two decades of war.
This week, jet-lagged at her family property in Port Orchard, Gustavson monitors from afar the tense situation unfolding in the southwest Asian nation.
The Taliban who had occupied the PARSA offices Sunday have left. An employee of the agency, whose full name is Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan, has begun negotiations with a representative of the new regime to get permission to resume work — helping displaced people, mentoring youth and assisting Afghan small businesses.
“We have got most of our operational staff back on site,” Gustavson said. “We’re going to try to make this bridge to a new chapter in Afghanistan. We stand for human rights, and we’re not going away.”
PARSA, which employs 125 Afghans, is one of more than 180 international organizations that had been operating in Afghanistan offering a wide range of aid, social services and other work in the war-wracked nation. Other groups in Afghanistan with ties to the Northwest include Federal Way-based World Vision, Portland-based Mercy Corps and Seattle-based Sahar, which got its start after 9/11 building schools for girls and in recent years expanded to offer educational programs.
All of the groups have put their work on pause and are focusing on the safety of their staff.
Many of the aid groups working in Afghanistan are funded through a mix of private donations and funds from the U.S. government or other governments and international organizations. The United Nations has called on the Taliban to allow aid groups to continue their work, which would be given added importance if the international aid money that once flowed to the deposed Afghan government remains suspended.
But the conditions under which these aid groups can operate remain uncertain.
Taliban representatives have made statements in recent days trying to convince Afghans that they will offer amnesty to those who worked for the now toppled Afghanistan government and its allies. They have called for “charitable workers” to resume their operations, and have talked about respecting women’s rights, although they have couched those as being defined by what is allowed within Islamic law.
But the Taliban’s track record includes five years when they pushed girls and women out of schools and implemented a harsh system of justice as they sheltered al-Qaida. During the past year, the Taliban have been accused by the U.S. government and human rights groups of supporting targeted killings of journalists, teachers, politicians and other civic leaders. In a statement released earlier this week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said he has received reports from across the country of “mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan, who fear a return to the darkest days.”
U.S. Senate staff has received reports of summary executions, public beatings and flogging of women, sexual violence and forced marriages in some areas captured by the the Taliban, according to a Monday letter signed by most U.S. senators to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
On Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman cited reports that the Taliban, “contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government,” are preventing Afghans from reaching the Kabul airport and leaving the country.
A long history serving Afghans
PARSA 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 Taliban rule.
Gustavson spent part of her youth in Afghanistan. Her family moved there when her father, Frank Hartung, left Seattle to teach at an international school in Kabul.
In the days leading up to the Taliban advance into Kabul, PARSA focused on an urgent effort to help some of the displaced families that poured into the hot, dusty city. The group had already helped relaunch a scouting program for boys and girls, and staff worked with troops in Kabul to hand out tents and donated supplies to establish a camp in a city park for 40 families who needed shelter.
Gustavson said that her departure was early enough Sunday — 8:30 a.m. — that she avoided the chaotic airport scenes that later unfolded as people thronged the airport and broke through security barriers.
In recent days, she said the area around PARSA headquarters appears calm, with Afghan Army soldiers continuing to report to a nearby compound, according to reports relayed from the group’s staff.
For Gustavson, amid the shock of the Taliban takeover there is hope that the civil war that has defined this nation for the past 20 years will now subside.
Gustavson noted PARSA in recent years already has had to deal with the Taliban because some of the districts where boys and girls scout troops were organized have been under Taliban control.
She said the Taliban have what she described as a “ministry for NGOs,” or nongovernmental organizations, that has become the point of contact as PARSA seeks to reopen.
“It’s extremely well organized,” said Gustavson, who plans to return to Afghanistan.
World Vision has operated in four provinces in central and western Afghanistan with a staff of about 300 and a budget of some $15 million. Their work is focused around health, nutrition, water, sanitation and children’s welfare. In a written statement, Asuntha Charles, national director of World Vision in Afghanistan, said offices in Herat and Kabul are “partially functional with essential staff,” and “committed to resuming activities when security conditions allow.”
Mercy Corps has had a presence in Afghanistan since 1986, and its work there has included agricultural development, renewable energy and job skills for young people.
“We are hoping to resume operations as soon as we feel it is safe to do so, with a focus on providing urgent needs such as clean water and sanitation supplies for those who have been displaced from their homes in recent months,” said Lynn Hector, Mercy Corp’s director of media and communications.
For aid organizations, one of the toughest issues is likely to be to what extent they can resume programs that seek to expand opportunities for women. Many such efforts were launched in the two decades that followed the Taliban’s fall from power.
Seattle-based Sahar had repaired 12 schools and built 13 others in a program that in recent years worked in close cooperation with the former government’s Ministry of Education, which then operate the schools. Sahar also organized seminars to encourage young women and men to pursue educational opportunities.
Malahat, an Afghan woman who leads the organization from Seattle, says that so far her staff has had no communication with the Taliban, or received any information about the new government’s policies on girls’ education.
She says it is still unclear how many of the schools remain in operation in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.
“If they stick to their words, and allow us to resume operations, I think that is great. But it to has be an environment where the staff feels safe, and they don’t dictate how we operate, and girls can participate in programs that empower them,” Malahat said.