Afghan human rights expert Sima Wali delivers her acceptance speech for Amnesty International’s Ginetta Sagan Fund Award in 1999.
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Sima Wali, the first Afghan refugee to come to this country in 1978 has died at her home in Falls Church, Virginia. To the many Afghans and Americans who knew her, Sima Wali was the soul of Afghanistan, a woman who dedicated her life to helping not just her country of birth, but refugee women and the men who support them, from around an increasingly desperate and dangerous world. You probably never heard of Sima Wali because she was not the kind of Afghan woman the mainstream media and their establishment backers wanted you to know about. As a member of Afghanistan’s ruling family, Sima represented many generations of Afghan leadership dedicated to bringing their country into the modern world after centuries of crushing colonialism from both the east and the west.
Sima was uniquely adept at that task, a cultured woman whose intelligence, grace and beauty charmed all who met her including the world’s leaders. From the time she arrived in the United States until illness consumed her, she worked tirelessly for human rights and the rights of women through her organization Refugee Women in Development (RefWid). Her work impacted the U.S. Congress, the State Department, and the United Nations. It led to numerous awards and to her selection as one of only three women to be chosen as delegates to the U.N.-organized Bonn Agreement, which created a new Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Because of Sima, that government mandated the creation of a Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Sima’s death constitutes an immense tragedy not just for her friends and family but for Afghanistan and especially for her adopted country, the United States. The fate of America and Afghanistan has been intimately linked since the 1970s when the Carter administration’s Zbigniew Brzezinski began a covert mission to undermine Afghanistan’s government long before the Soviet invasion. Sima was one of the earliest victims of that destabilization when Marxists claimed power in a bloody April 1978 coup and she was forced to flee. As a refugee woman and naturalized American, no one embodied the commitment, the dedication and the determination to overcome the catastrophic consequences of that relationship more than her.
In 1998 when we first met in New York City she was nearly despondent. Despite her over two decades of work, the Clinton administration saw little problem with the draconian military advances made by the Taliban from their bases in Pakistan. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in fact, was said to believe that the Taliban represented a cleansing antidote to the corrupted and feuding warlords empowered by the U.S. in their 1980s war against the Soviets.
That same year, 1998, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski boasted to an interviewer from the French Nouvel Observateur that the consequences of the CIA’s secret operation that destroyed Sima’s country were far from bad. In fact the destruction of Afghanistan was never a concern at all. “That secret operation was an excellent idea.” He said. “It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”
Brzezinski dismissed concern about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or having armed future terrorists by saying: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” And Brzezinski even went so far as to admit that the U.S. had not only lied about its support for the rebels before the Soviet invasion but that he’d told Carter the action would probably guarantee that the Soviets would invade.
We were fortunate enough to return with Sima to Afghanistan in 2002 in a remarkable journey where we witnessed first-hand her commitment to the Afghan people. Filming Sima’s workwith the women and men who had risked their lives to secretly educate and train women during the Taliban era – with no budget other than their meager earnings – was beyond humbling. That October trip held a moment of promise and hope even amidst the ruins. One of the Cold War’s ugliest chapters had finally come to an end. The Taliban had been sent back to Pakistan where they came from and a ravaged Afghanistan could be set back on a course to peace and prosperity.
But the future of Afghanistan was clouded by the expansion of American empire into Central Asia and the not so secret agendas of America’s supposed allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. From her many years on the public stage, Sima knew that she represented an obstacle to powerful forces that wanted to rewrite Afghanistan’s history and deny its long progress toward democracy. Her very existence threatened the warlords, drug dealers and human traffickers that thrived in an economy destroyed by 25 years of constant war. But most of all she threatened those who wanted the past forgotten; those that believed Afghanistan should never resume its drive for independence as a secular state, and that equal rights for women and the country’s ethnic minorities were a dangerous dream. And for that she will be remembered by us, the most.
Since America’s most recent war in Afghanistan began in 2001, Americans have been fed a steady diet of misinformation and outright falsehoods. These falsehoods range from claims that the Afghan nation was never really a nation at all; to proclamations that Afghanistan was always ruled by warlords and that it is dangerously naïve to think otherwise. Those who knew Afghanistan prior to America’s longest war, understand that these assumptions are wrong and are at best self-serving delusions. It was the United States who backed Afghanistan’s corrupt warlords against the country’s ruling dynasty as early as 1973 and it was the United States that put them back into power following its invasion in 2001. Yet these falsehoods form the basis of a Hollywood fiction that continues to hobble America’s failing effort there.
Over the years there have been glimmers of hope that a new awareness of Afghanistan’s true history was finally emerging from the darkness. An October 2009 article in the New York Times by Elisabeth Bumiller, titled REMBERING AFGHANISTAN’S GOLDEN AGE, stated: “American and Afghan scholars and diplomats say it is worth recalling four decades in the country’s recent history, from the 1930s to the 1970s, when there was a semblance of a national government and Kabul was known as “the Paris of Central Asia.” Bumiller goes on to write that “Afghans and Americans alike describe the country in those days as a poor nation, but one that built national roads, stood up an army and defended its borders.”
In a separate 2009 article in Foreign Policy Magazine titled A CASE FOR HUMILITY IN AFGHANISTAN, author Steve Coll writes: “In my view, most current American commentary underestimates the potential for transformational change in South Asia over the next decade or two, spurred by economic progress and integration” Between the late 18thcentury and World War I, Afghanistan was a troubled but coherent and often independent state. Although very poor, after the 1920s it enjoyed a long period of continuous peace with its neighbors, secured by a multi-ethnic Afghan National Army and unified by a national culture.”
In addition, prior to 1978, when Sima first became a refugee, Afghanistan was self-sufficient in food production and had no refugee problem. An even closer look reveals the origins of the modern Afghan state dating back to the 16th century and the rise of the Roshaniya movement. Led by Sufi poet Bayazid Ansarithe movement is indicative of the broadly progressive nature of Afghan Islam. Ansari’s goal was said to be the achievement of equality between men and women. In his landmark 1969 book The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan — the Carnegie Corporation’s Vartan Gregorian states: “Ansari’s aim, among other things was to establish a national religion, the movement encouraged the Afghans in the tribal belt to struggle against Moghul rule. The Roshaniya movement thus promoted the first political formulation of the concept of Afghan nationality.”
Prior to British military invasions of the mid-19th century, Afghans were not even hostile to European Imperialists. East India Company political officer Alexander Burnes wrote home in May of 1832, “The people of this country are kind hearted and hospitable. They have no prejudice against a Christian and none against our nation.” Concerned over Russian competition, Burnes argued that a strong Afghan leader could hold the country together and resist foreign encroachment, but a country split into feudal principalities and tribes would invite intrigue and cause chaos. Yet the good will of the Afghan people was lost in 1839 when the British government willfully acquiesced to sending an army into Kabul and suffered what was at the time, the greatest military defeat in British history.
Afghanistan’s late 19th century Amir Abdur Rahman Khan began his rule determined to establish a modern nation-state. By 1901 he had created a national army and a government bureaucracy that paved the way for a small but well educated middle-class. In 1919, Abdur Rahman’s grandson Amanullah brought on a period of rapid modernization and democratic change that would be the envy of any nation-builder today. Amanullah declared Afghanistan’s independence from Britain, drew up its first constitution in 1923, guaranteed universal suffrage and civil rights to all of Afghanistan’s minorities, prohibited revenge killings and abolished subsidies for tribal chieftains as well as the royal family.
Overthrown in 1929 with the help of the British, Amanullah’s embrace of modernism, equality and democracy is often viewed as the cause of his political downfall. Yet, as Vartan Gregorian and others have observed, Amanullah’s political undoing stemmed mostly from his inability to support his social reforms with solid economic measures, not from any underlying rejection of his educational and political programs. The same could be said of King Zahir Shah’s “experiment in democracy,” from 1963 to 1973, where failure stemmed from a weak economy and the emerging storm of external Cold War political forces that were already tearing at the fabric of Afghanistan’s political structure.
Sima Wali believed that of any force on earth the United States would understand and help to restore the hard fought victories over feudalism and backwardness that had been won for Afghanistan following British colonial rule. But as time went on she came to learn that those beliefs would never be fulfilled. She would laugh off the dangers of working in Afghanistan’s distant provinces. She would say she was the canary in the Afghan mineshaft and that as long as she was still breathing the voiceless Afghan people would have a voice in the struggle to restore what had been lost. But without the support she had been promised she stood alone. During her last trip to Afghanistan in 2005, she was targeted by the Taliban and narrowly escaped a violent militant attack. She returned home with unusual symptoms and a new enemy slowly gained ground.
The parallel struggles that Sima waged to restore her homeland for her people and her personal struggle to regain her heath are now over. Her open rejection of “misplaced charity”; and anguished cries for “sensible long-term strategies to rebuild the Afghan nation” have gone unheard. As far back as 2003 she stated clearly at a Global Citizens Circle presentation in Boston that she had deep concerns for events that were developing in Afghanistan. “Although some gains have been achieved in removing a repressive regime, women remain at risk and I remain highly concerned about the Taliban mentality in ruling circles. And as an Afghan and an American I will testify to you that the argument against women’s rights is neither Afghan nor Islamic!”
In a stroke of irony, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the man who’d sacrificed Sima’s Afghanistan to give the hated Soviet Union its own Vietnam had also passed on just four months earlier and in Falls Church, Virginia, the same city where Sima had lived until her death.
A year before, the architect of America’s use of Imperial power to attain global dominance had made a startling about face in an article titled “Towards a Global Realignment” warning that “the United States is still the world’s politically, economically, and militarily most powerful entity but, given complex geopolitical shifts in regional balances, it is no longer the globally imperial power.”
As Sima Wali discovered many years before, had Zbigniew Brzezinski used his powerful influence on American policy makers to aid Afghanistan in its struggles for democracy back in the 1970s instead of using it as the bait to lure the Soviets into invading, the world would be in a very different place.
For over a decade Sima fought with all her strength, but though her voice has now been silenced, her deeds and her words will live on to inspire new generations of Afghans and Americans to create the genuine democracy they have been denied for so long.
Copyright – 2017 Fitzgerald & Gould All rights reserved
Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are the authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story , Crossing Zero The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire and The Voice . Visit their websites at invisiblehistory and grailwerk
What have they done to our fair sister? From “When The Music’s Over” by The Doors