A Review of Sima Samar’s “Outspoken: My Fight for Freedom and Human Rights in Afghanistan”
Ali Kosha 25 June 2024

The Taliban‘s 2021 return to power in Afghanistan, erasing much of the progress made in the previous two decades, raises critical questions about the international community’s efforts and the country’s short democratic experiment. Sima Samar, a human rights advocate and former Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), provides her perspective on these events in her new book, Outspoken: My Fight For Freedom and Human Rights in Afghanistan. In collaboration with Sally Armstrong, Samar opens her book with a recount of the devastating May 8, 2021 attack on the Sayed-al Shuhada school in Kabul’s Hazara enclave of Dasht-e Barchi, describing the horrifying event as feeling like “a rumbling coming from the core of the earth” (p. 22). This attack, coupled with earlier violence against Hazara protesters in 2016 and the assault on a maternity ward in the same Hazara area in 2021, seems to have profoundly affected Samar. Reflecting on the May 8 attack, Samar calls it “the beginning of the end of the Afghanistan” (p. 2) she had dedicated herself to rebuilding.

Born in the late 1950s to a father with two wives, and later witnessing the arranged marriage and death of her elder sister, Samar learned to challenge inequality in rights between men and women from an early age. Her father’s job at the USAID-funded Helmand Valley Development project brought the family to Helmand, now a predominantly Pashtun province, where Samar could start school. As the only Hazara child in her class, Samar faced discrimination based on ethnicity and religion on her very first day at school. When her Shia beliefs clashed with her Sunni teacher’s during a placement test, she was advised by the headmistress to be “Shi’ite at home and Sunni at school” (p. 42), a compromise to ensure her safety. Later, during her high school years, despite discrimination in school, Samar found hope in joining a student movement “seeking a better Afghanistan.” She and other Hazara students, a minority in their school, decided that excelling in their studies was their “way of resisting discrimination.” (p. 49)

In the face of hardships, Samar achieved her dream of studying medicine at Kabul University in the late 1970s. However, her time in Kabul was marked by the communist coup of April 1978, orchestrated by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). This event transformed the state apparatus into an instrument of terror. In the aftermath of the coup, dissent was ruthlessly suppressed. As Samar recalls, “almost immediately, people who didn’t agree with the new regime, were arrested, tortured, killed or disappeared… Anyone who didn’t support the party [the PDPA] was in danger” (p. 60). Samar’s family and friends were not spared; her first husband, three brothers-in-law, and their uncle were all taken by the PDPA government, never to be seen again. Samar’s desperate search for her husband led her to Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul over a hundred times. She recounts, “I went one last time to the Pul-e-Charkhi prison, carrying clean clothes for Ghafoor [Samar’s husband] and handing them over to a guard. While waiting outside, I calculated the number of times I’d stood on that spot and figured I’d been there for more than a hundred Fridays since June 1979. And as had happened on each one of the Fridays, the guard returned to me with the same bundle I’d brought and told me there was no one there by the name of Professor Ghafoor Sultani” (p. 75).

After graduating and briefly working at a hospital in Kabul, Samar returned to her hometown of Jaghori in Ghazni province, where she established a clinic on a piece of land that belonged to her husband. Despite the considerable challenges she faced as a single woman in her traditional, isolated community, Samar dedicated herself to serving her community no matter how difficult it was: “There were no roads in the area, so getting to my patients was often a challenge. Occasionally someone would take me by car, but a horse or donkey was the more usual mode of transport. Most often I went on foot. One time a woman had been in labor for three days when her family came to the clinic and begged me to come – I had to walk ten hours to get to her… I helped them birth their babies and cared for their elderly, stitched up their wounds, and soothed their pains. I taught them how to avoid illnesses and tried to convince women to have fewer children. In the process, I learned as much as they did” (p. 80). Samar’s presence as a medical doctor also “brought Pashtuns and Hazaras [of the area] together —after all, they suffered the same ills, and I [Samar] was the common denominator” (p. 80).

Samar initiated her efforts locally, establishing hospitals, schools, and orphanages in Afghanistan and, later, in Pakistan to provide essential healthcare for Afghan refugees. She dared to keep her schools open during the Taliban’s first reign. However, her nationwide contributions to building a dignified Afghanistan began in the early 2000s. During this time, she established the country’s first Ministry for Women’s Affairs. After being removed from the cabinet, she co-founded and led the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission for nearly two decades. Samar’s work was not without risk. Her advocacy for equal and human rights for all, for that to be enshrined in the constitution, earned her the label of the “Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan” (p. 167). She also faced multiple assassination attempts, including one on June 18, 2013 (p. 222), as her mission statement from the start was “no peace without justice”, making all the possible efforts to ensure justice and peace, “to find a way to achieve proper reconciliation and sustainable peace without revenge” (p. 183).

Samar summarizes the “Ides of August [2021]”, as a complex interplay of international and domestic actors, stating, “The inside story about what happened on August 15, 2021, is about the United States, NATO, the United Nations, the mujahideen leaders, the tribal elders, and President Ashraf Ghani, along with his handpicked associates. It also involves the Taliban and those who funded them” (p. 266). However, throughout the book, there’s a special focus on the pivotal role played by three individuals within the Pashtun elite who were instrumental in wasting Afghanistan’s historic opportunity to establish a democratic and dignified country.

The first is Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American on the National Security Council, who in early 2002 had significant influence over President Bush: “After Laura Bush, Khalilzad has the most access to me [Bush]. Here in this country whoever has access to the president holds power as well” (p. 154). Khalilzad later served as US ambassador to Afghanistan and US Special Representative, negotiating a controversial “peace deal” with the Taliban under the Trump administration, which led to the American withdrawal and the Taliban’s return in 2021.

Samar contends that Khalilzad, the US negotiator with the Taliban since 2018, misrepresented the details of their talks. Khalilzad publicly asserted that “the gains of the last twenty years were to be safeguarded,” yet this was absent from the joint statement (p. 251). Also, Khalilzad and others falsely “promised the troop withdrawal would follow a ceasefire – there was no ceasefire. They claimed they negotiated in good faith – they didn’t” (p. 252).

The second individual is Hamed Karzai, who hailed the Germany of World War II in an official trip and in the presence of the country’s then chancellor, Gerhard Schröder: “In his remarks, President Karzai said, ‘The people of Afghanistan have a lot of sympathy with Germany, and even during World War II, Afghans were listening to the news and praying for the victory of Germany.’ I [Samar] was surprised by what I was hearing. Chancellor Schröder put his utensils down, paused for a few seconds, and then told our president, ‘We are not proud of our action during World War II; in fact, we are ashamed of that part of our history’” (p. 162). Yet in Afghanistan, back in 2002, Karzai made concessions to the mujahideen to secure his election as head of the transitional government. Then under pressure from the mujahideen Karzai removed Samar from the cabinet as the first minister for Women’s Affairs. Much later, Karzai repeatedly referred to the Taliban “very much as[his] brothers. Additionally, Samar cites UNAMA and AIHRC reports alleging that Karzai and other candidates engaged in fraud and interference, including the use of “ghost voters,” during the 2009 presidential election.

Then Karzai’s interference with the AIHRC led the institution to lose its international credibility. According to Samar, Karzai “had dismissed three capable commissioners [of the AIHRC] and replaced them with four unqualified ones. Not one had the qualifications required by the Paris Principles. However, one of the newly appointed [human rights] commissioners, Abdul Rahman Hotak, was a former Taliban supporter, and a man who had publicly expressed his opposition to the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, claiming it was un-Islamic” (p. 223).

The third, and the most relevant of all three individuals in the collapse of the republic in Afghanistan is Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who since 2001 worked as an advisor to Karzai, the minister of economy, chancellor of Kabul University, and finally following two fraudulent elections became president and ran away in 2021, leaving the country to the Taliban. The election through which Ghani became president in 2014 “was rife with corruption and fraud that was worse than ever. For example, we were expecting six to eight million people to vote but the Independent Election Commission (IEC) printed twenty million ballots. In the end, Ghani won, but the result was so close between him and Abdullah Abdullah that the US secretary of state, John Kerry, had to step in and negotiate an agreement. Eventually, Ghani was declared president and Abdullah chief executive, and together they formed what they called the ‘unity government’. That meant 50 percent of the ministers would be proposed by Ghani, and 50 percent by Abdullah” (p. 232). The so-called “unity government”, however, was not functional as “it was clear that Ghani would not support the ministers who had been nominated by Abdullah [CE] and blocked whatever action they took” (p. 237).

Before the elections, “his [Ghani’s] promises were music” to Samar’s ear (p. 231) as he “promised that he would do everything he could to promote the principles of human rights and equality among the people in Afghanistan. He said hundreds of times that all Afghans are equal and no one is superior to another” (p. 232). Yet, once in power, “he [Ghani] seemed to want to centralize power and make every decision himself – the opposite of what he promised. He was dividing people instead of uniting them – the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Hazaras; he even tried to create division within Pashtuns. I was shocked, surprised, and very disappointed. I had backed the wrong horse” (p. 232). “Once in power, Ashraf Ghani became a populist. As long as the people around him were clapping, he thought he was untouchable” (p.234). “He [Ghani] surrounded himself with people who would agree with him and fired those who questioned him. He also played the ethnicity card very badly, favoring certain Pashtun warlords over others. Instead of creating peace and unity, he was constantly creating new divisions” (p. 241).

Despite his promises to end nepotism in Afghanistan, “once in power, he [Ghani] appointed his retired uncle as the ambassador to Moscow and filled his office with cousins and cronies” (p. 233). His first term as president ended in the 2019 election, which was an absolute tragedy as “the IEC [even] failed to confirm the number of people who had turned out to vote or even the number of invalid votes that were cast” (p. 242).

In his last years in office, “Ghani began acting like a lone wolf —all the decisions were being made by him and they were not shared with his cabinet. He began to fire anyone who brought him bad news. When generals told him the police and the soldiers were not being paid, he dismissed them. Ultimately, Ghani did not have the political will, skills or ability to govern” (p. 258). In the meantime, in 2021, “Americans successfully pushed Ghani to agree to the release of five thousand Taliban prisoners from jails in exchange for the one thousand Afghan soldiers held captive by the Taliban” (p. 253).

According to Samar, “The Taliban and the Americans had agreed that there would be a political agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan delegation and the Taliban, with the creation of a transitional government to safeguard the achievements of the last twenty years. Initially, Ghani said he would step down only when he could hand the presidency to an elected person, a demand that was not practical or possible… [later] Ghani said he would be willing to leave power after a loya jirga. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed Ghani to send a delegation to Doha to secure the deal with the Taliban, claiming it would get them the ceasefire they had been asking for. But Ghani backed out and did not allow his delegation to fly to Doha. [Then] on August 15, the world woke up to the news that the president of Afghanistan had run away and the Taliban were walking down the streets of Kabul toward the Presidential Palace” (p. 274).

In addition, “the negotiating team [of the former Afghanistan government] described president Ghani as a man who had started acting like a dictator and was not respecting the rule of law, the constitution, or human rights and women’s rights” (p. 254). Meanwhile, “by the summer of 2021, most of the generals had been removed and replaced with unqualified people who were close to Ghani. Army officers were told not to fight the Taliban. The soldiers, who hadn’t been paid in months, lacked food and medical care and weren’t being supplied. And meanwhile, Ghani had his finger in every pie, interfering with the decisions made by his ministers and his generals. Corruption and nepotism were rife. The signs of defeat were all there (p. 269)”.

The same three men Khalilzad, Karzai, and Ashraf Ghani are those who opposed, in the 2004 assembly for the constitution, a decentralized parliamentary system in Afghanistan, something that would be more reflective of the realities of the multi-ethnic, multi-language society of Afghanistan. “When the assembly began in January 2004 it became clear immediately that the majority of the delegates, including me [Samar], favored a parliamentary system over a centralized presidential one. However, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, and Ashraf Ghani, the minister of finance and advisor to Karzai strongly promoted a presidential system. They sacked the meeting with governors who were not official delegates and tried to bribe people to take their side” (p. 180).

In conclusion, the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, in addition to all ills it brought, was a reversal of everything people like Samar worked hard to build. Samar built schools, but the Taliban destroyed schools: 150 is the number of schools the Taliban burned until 2008 (p. 150). Samar opened the country’s first Ministry for Women’s Affairs, but the Taliban replaced that ministry with their “Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”. Samar helped establish the country’s only institution to promote human rights, AIHRC, but the Taliban closed the institution stating it wasn’t “necessary”. Samar saved lives, including the Hazara ones, but under the Taliban the Hazaras are constantly under attack.

While Samar proudly states that she has been promoting “human rights for all, including the Taliban” (p. 280), and acknowledges the fact that there have been three strikes against her, “I’m a woman, I speak for women and I’m Hazara – the most persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan,” (p. 1), she makes no mention of the pattern the Afghan state has been utilizing to violate human rights of all, particularly the non-Pashtun groups of the country. Although Samar calls, as politely as possible, upon the international community and the UN to employ the Responsibility to Protect Program, known as R2P, whose “Pillar 3 says if a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the UN charter” (p. 295), she does not touch upon the fact that, despite its benign appearance, the Afghan state brought a “demise” to the land’s Jewish community whose last known member had to flee the country after the Taliban retook power in 2021; brutally persecuted the country’s Hindu and Sikh communities, committed the Hazara genocide of the 1890s, and for most of its history has been terrorizing its population more than serving and protecting them.



Cover photo: Afghan women with their children arrive to cross the Kokcha river in Yaftal Sufla district of Badakhshan province on February 24, 2024. (Photo by Wakil Kohsar / AFP)



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