Former Navy women’s soccer goalkeeper Haley Carter, an assistant coach for the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team from 2016-2018, was part of a group that helped evacuate members of the program (and their families) from Afghanistan in recent weeks following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the capital city of the country.
Carter and her team helped evacuate more than 100 people from Afghanistan. She has shared images on social media of the Afghans’ harrowing trip to the Kabul airport and evacuation.
Carter is a former U.S. Marine, serving two tours of duty in Iraq, working for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and taking part in humanitarian missions across Southeast Asia. Even though Carter was in the States, the former Marine could help the Afghans by relaying real-time intelligence reports she received from the ground.
Carter joined Glenn Clark Radio Aug. 31 to discuss helping evacuate the players and more.
PressBox: How did you end up working with the Afghanistan women’s soccer program from the States? How did that end up being a challenge that you took on a few years ago?
Haley Carter: I played pro soccer for the Houston Dash after the Marine Corps. I had been coaching on the side. I enjoy being around the game. I want to be around the game in my life. Even when I was in the Marine Corps, I continued to play [soccer]. My personal sponsor in my last year of playing was a company called Hummel. Their corporate headquarters are based in Denmark. And at the time, the program director of the Afghanistan women’s national team, Khalida Popal — who I’m sure many of you have also seen in the media lately — she was working for Hummel. My contact said, “Hey, as a Marine, you have a special place in your heart for women in the Middle East and Central Asia. We’ve got to introduce you to Khalida.” So I said, “OK, sure.”
Khalida and I hit it off right away. I said, “Listen, if you need any help with the women’s team, reach out to me, let me know and we can put together a solid coaching staff.” Sure enough, about two weeks later she reached out. She said, “How serious are you about that?” I said, “Super serious.” It just sort of took off from there. So I went from coaching in the collegiate game to coaching internationally. I was with them from 2016 through 2018. Our staff sort of ceased working with the Afghan Football Federation after we assisted several players in pursuing sexual assault allegations and investigations against the president of the Federation. But we’ve been connected and very close with the players of that national team since 2016.
PB: Did you move to Afghanistan when this all happened?
HC: It was never safe for Americans to travel to Kabul to coach. It was never safe. Half of our team actually consisted of women who lived outside of Afghanistan. Either they were refugees or their parents were refugees and they held dual citizenship and have an Afghan passport. And then the other half came from inside Afghanistan. It was never safe enough for the women to play home games or events or international friendlies in Kabul. So we would always travel to [other] countries. We competed in the South Asian Football Federation Championship in India, for instance, in 2016. We competed against Jordan in 2018 for two international friendlies as they were preparing for AFC Women’s World Cup qualifiers.
PB: It has long been very clear that the measures taken had to be extreme, correct?
HC: Even before the Taliban came into power, it was always an act of defiance for those women to play football — not only just playing football, but these women were agents of social change. The sexual assault allegations and investigations, they fundamentally changed how the criminal justice system approaches survivors of sexual assault. Because of that, they’re very high visibility women and activists — more than just athletes. Their very existence is an act of defiance.
PB: Because of your experience, how much did you follow the decision that was made by the previous administration in 2020 to remove troops and how this was going to unfold in the past year? How much had you been paying attention to it? Were you already thinking about, “Hey, we might need to start putting together an evacuation plan?” Was that something that was building from when the decision was made or did that come more recently once we realized how quickly the country was going to fall?
HC: I’ve been following it closely for a long time now. I lost friends to that war. I lost classmates to that war. For me, I’m still processing my feelings on all of this, to be completely honest with you. Of course, we were tracking it. The events of the last month, I would say, occurred much more rapidly than anybody anticipated — not surprising to me because we decided to pull out dead in the middle of a very clearly documented fighting season, so it’s not terribly surprising that things fell as quickly as they did to the Taliban. We’ve been watching it and keeping an eye on it. Really, about three weeks is when we started initial conversations about, “What are we going to do if Kabul falls? What is that going to look like? How are we going to be able to get our players out? What kind of documentation do we need?” For us … working on things concurrently versus consequentially made a huge difference for us. We were already starting to put together evacuation lists and documentation for visa paperwork and whatnot over two weeks ago.
PB: I read about having to have some of these women go through sewage systems in order to sneak out. How long did all of this take to how many players and how many people connected to the players out of Afghanistan during the last few weeks?
HC: We started visa paperwork [Aug. 18]. The Taliban rolled into Kabul on a Sunday. We had visa documentation we started working on the following Wednesday and by the following Saturday they were moving to the airport. It took three days — two nights — to get them into the airport, trying to navigate around various Taliban checkpoints, moving their way toward the gate, trying to time the appropriate or optimal time to move forward to the gate depending on what the crowd looked like and what the threat level was and then making sure we had contact inside the airport to receive them. They flew out at 2:30 a.m. local time [Aug. 24]. It took two nights of camping outside the airport, trying to stay safe and monitoring their food and water and cell phone battery and whatnot before we could finally get all of them in.
PB: Were you able to get everyone evacuated before evacuations came to a close?
HC: We got everyone who was on our initial list. The unfortunate part of this, pragmatically speaking, is that we had to prioritize. When I talk about those women who are agents of social change, those are women who are very visible in the media, have done multiple interviews. Everyone know who they were. We had to prioritize our senior national team, their families and other athletes [and officials] as well were part of that group. Everyone that was on our initial list made it out. We still have a few players and families that remain. We’re working, obviously, on solutions for them as well.
PB: Can it be done?
HC: I like to think optimistically, right? Nobody on our team has ever thought [that] we can’t do this or we can’t pull this off. We don’t necessarily know what the options look like. There are quite a few things that need to clear themselves up. I’m sure many of you have seen in the news the Turks and the Qataris are negotiating with the Taliban to see who’s going to run the airport. Eventually the Taliban are going to have to start governing the country. At some point the focus is going to shift. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now that I think is creating chaos. And things change, still, every day. It’s a matter of letting this situation develop, then explore what the options are. We don’t really know what those look like yet. I continue to remain positive. We can’t afford to be negative about it.
PB: I saw the initial group was evacuated to Australia. What is your message to the average person about the significance of and the need for welcoming refugees given these circumstances?
HC: For me, this is a human issue. This isn’t a political issue. Nobody wants to leave their family, their home, their lives, their profession, everything that they’ve ever known. To move to a foreign country with nothing, nobody wants to do that. The amount of trauma that these people have endured and these women have especially endured over the last two weeks is just unspeakable. I would just ask that people show some compassion. Immigrants are what make America great. We wouldn’t exist without immigrants. I hope that people understand the desperation that these individuals have shown. The fact that a male youth soccer player would rather cling to the landing gear of a C-17 than risk living under the Taliban, that should tell you something. This situation is highly dangerous, highly volatile, and these people have sacrificed everything — everything that they’ve known. They have family members that they’ve left behind. It’s a tragedy. These are human beings. We need to show compassion and appreciate the struggle that they’ve undertaken.
To hear more from Carter, including how to help out Afghan refugees, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Haley Carter