Trump lets in Afghan girls robotics team

Twice rejected for US visas, an all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan has arrived in Washington after an extraordinary, last-minute intervention by US President Donald Trump.

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The six-girl team and their chaperone completed their journey just after midnight on Saturday from their hometown of Herat, Afghanistan, to enter their ball-sorting robot in the three-day high school competition starting on Sunday in the US capital.

Awaiting them at the gate at Washington Dulles International Airport were a US special envoy and Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, who described it as a rare moment of celebration for his beleaguered nation.

“Seventeen years ago, this would not have been possible at all,” Mohib said in an interview.

“They represent our aspirations and resilience despite having been brought up in a perpetual conflict. These girls will be proving to the world and the nation that nothing will prevent us from being an equal and active member of the international community.”

The girls’ case has drawn global attention and become a flashpoint in the debate about Trump’s efforts to tighten entrance to the US, including from many majority-Muslim countries. Afghanistan isn’t included in Trump’s temporary travel ban, but critics have said the ban is emblematic of a broader effort to put a chill on Muslims entering the US.

It also renewed the focus on the longer-term US plans for aiding Afghanistan’s future, as Trump’s administration prepares a new military strategy that will include sending more troops to the country where the US has been fighting since 2001. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday the strategy was moving forward but “not finalised yet.”

Earlier in the week Trump used a rare “parole” mechanism to sidestep the visa system to end a dramatic saga in which the team twice travelled from their home in western Afghanistan through largely Taliban-controlled territory to Kabul, where their visa applications were denied twice.

The US won’t say why the girls were rejected for visas, citing confidentiality. But Mohib said that based on discussions with US officials, it appears the girls were rebuffed due to concerns they would not return to Afghanistan.