Denmark shifts focus in Afghanistan

The Danish government has released an Afghanistan strategy for the next three years that prioritizes civilian efforts over military contributions.

Denmark shifts focus in Afghanistan
Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers participate in a combat training exercise in Kabul on October 22nd. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/Scanpix
The Foreign Ministry on Thursday announced a strategy that “marks a new phase” in Denmark’s role in Afghanistan by shifting from military contributions to a more advisory role in the nation.
By 2015, Afghans will assume full responsibility for the country’s security and nation-building efforts, and Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard said a new commitment from the international community “is what Afghanistan needs.”
"I'm glad to see the broad political support for the ongoing Danish engagement in Afghanistan. With this strategy, Denmark will continue to be a significant contributor to providing security and development in Afghanistan. That is what Afghanistan needs. And it is in our own interest,” Lidegaard said in a statement. 
“The new strategy is a natural contribution in Afghanistan's transition. Afghanistan now has the full responsibility for the country’s security and social development, but they will need support in the coming years,” he added. 
Defence Minister Nicolai Wammen said that Denmark will contribute around 160 people at the outset of 2015, including counsellors in the Kabul region and a transport helicopter in the northern part of the country. 
“I am very pleased that we in the group of political parties behind the Afghanistan effort have reached agreement on a strategy that will ensure that we, as a solidary member of NATO, build on the results already achieved by the Danish and allied soldiers,” Wammen said. 
According to a report from AFP, Afghan casualties have increased significantly over the past two years as Nato forces have handed over the majority of combat duties to the Afghanistan. The US military estimated this month that  as many as 9,000 Afghan police or troops had been killed or wounded so far this year. 
Denmark’s formal military engagement ended in July 2013 after 12 years, but residuals forces remain in the country today. The war cost 43 Danish lives and a total of 20 billion kroner ($3.6 billion). 
In August, Lidegaard called for a thorough examination of Denmark’s participation in the Afghanistan War in order to "learn from both good and bad experiences”.

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The Danish resident saving Afghanistan’s women footballers one player at a time

The former captain of Afghanistan's women's football team has been working tirelessly from her home in Denmark to evacuate the team's players, who are under threat from the Taliban. And she isn't giving up.

The Danish resident saving Afghanistan's women footballers one player at a time
Khalida Popal photographed in the stands of FC Nordsjaelland in Farum. Photo: Tariq Mikkel Khan / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP

Khalida Popal is more determined than ever to continue her fight for the emancipation of girls and women in her native country, where the Taliban do not allow women to play sports.

As she battles to bring football players out of the country, she hasn’t slept for days.

“We have managed to get 75 people out of Afghanistan, which includes players and their families” who have flown to Australia, Popal tells AFP, sitting in the stands of FC Nordsjaelland, the Danish first division team for which she works as commercial coordinator. “We are trying to get more players out of Afghanistan. We’ll do everything possible to get our players out.”

Popal, 34, came to Denmark from Afghanistan 10 years ago as a refugee. She has not slept since Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban, her hands clasped tightly around her phone as she helps organise the evacuation of the players, together with professional players’ union FIFPro among others.

On her voicemail, she listens to desperate pleas for help. As manager of Afghanistan’s now-splintered national squad, she is the point-person for the players, who are in a state of shock. Some of them have been threatened by hardline Islamists, others beaten by the Taliban.

“I had to take the lead, together with my team, to help them to get out of Afghanistan. The players were crying, seeking protection, hopeless,” she says.

Tool for emancipation

She helped them “to regroup, to keep up hope and not give up. That was the toughest,” she said, describing herself as a “survivor”. For their safety, she won’t disclose any details about the players still in Afghanistan that they’re trying to get out. She looks exhausted, but her determination is visible.

For her, football is her passion. But more importantly, she sees it as a tool for the emancipation of Afghan women. Everything she learned on the pitch — team spirit, determination, perseverance — has come in useful these past few days. She recalls her own childhood in Afghanistan, one she says was stolen by the Taliban.

“I was not able to go to school, I was not able to participate in any social activities,” she explains. “We wanted to kind of take revenge and say ‘football is the way that we want to take revenge from the Taliban and the Taliban is our enemy’. That was our strong statement.”

Since the first women’s teams started emerging about 15 years ago, football has grown rapidly in Afghanistan. But it all disappeared overnight when Kabul fell to the Taliban.

“We had around 3,000 to 4,000 women and girls who were registered in the football federation at different levels: grassroots, elite level, and semi-elite level. We had referees, coaches, female coaches,” Popal says.

‘Our pride has been taken from us’

“After the fall of Kabul, that was all gone. That’s sad,” she says, her voice cracking.

The players’ future is unknown at this point. They “might play football, but they will not play as players of Afghanistan, because they will not have a country nor a national team.”

The Taliban “have changed the flag of Afghanistan, the flag we felt proud to see and play for. Our pride has been taken from us,” she said.

With US troops set to leave on August 31, Popal, whose parents also live in Denmark, fears her native country will be abandoned and forgotten.

“Once again, people will live in a dark time. And whatever humanitarian crisis and crime happens in Afghanistan, nobody will be able to report about it.”

Especially, she says, since the Taliban have become better at speaking to the international media.

But she will continue to use her own voice.

“As human beings, stand together with me and fight, and be the voice for every woman of Afghanistan,” she pleaded. “For every woman who is left in the country, every woman who feels betrayed and abandoned.”