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Sima Samar served in the Interim Administration of Afghanistan, established the first-ever Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and chaired the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission from 2002 until 2019. A visiting scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, she is the author of the memoir Outspoken: My Fight for Freedom and Human Rights in Afghanistan.

Less than a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the allied military intervention of Afghanistan began. By December, the country had been reclaimed by Afghans and the Taliban had been expelled, or so we thought.

That same month a meeting was held in Bonn, Germany, so that Afghans could map out the future of our country. I could not attend because I was receiving the John Humphrey Freedom Award from Canada. (Mr. Humphrey was the principal author of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.) I was in Vancouver when my phone rang at 4:30 a.m. It was my son calling.

“Mum I just heard on the BBC and also on CNN that you are in the cabinet of the new government,” he told me. “You are the Vice-President for President Hamid Karzai and Minister for Women’s Affairs.”

I shook the sleep out of my eyes and turned on the television. It was true: My dream to see a democratic country that embraced all of its citizens now had a blueprint and I was part of it. During the next 20 years, I was an insider – which is why I know precisely why the government eventually collapsed. I had access to the dishonesty, the collusion, the corruption, the self-serving leaders and the hijacking of the religion. What happened during those years is a cautionary tale to others who allow deception and misinformation about culture, religion and gender to overrule the history – and ultimately the will – of the people.

Throughout my life, I witnessed a dozen rulers in Afghanistan with varying degrees of ability and commitment to good governance, development and human rights. Although Afghanistan has always been a poor country where the majority of the population practise Islam and live within a patriarchal system, we had never experienced the gender apartheid and extreme interpretation of Islamic law that the Taliban forced on the people from 1996 until 2001 and again today.

Everyone wonders how the country collapsed. How did Afghanistan change from a country where I attended co-educational schools, walked freely, and was not required to wear a scarf on my head or a burka, even in the conservative province of Helmand where I grew up, to the only country in the world where girls are banned from education after Grade 6?

Laying blame is a complicated business so we need to go back to the first cause: the coup d’état of 1978, which saw the overthrow of president Mohammed Daoud Khan, and the subsequent invasion of the USSR in support of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan’s puppet regime. Next, the hijacking of religion: During the 1980s, the United States, United Kingdom and neighbouring Arab countries entered into a proxy war to stop the advancement of the USSR, using Islam as a weapon of war – training and equipping the most religiously conservative groups and funding madrassas where Afghan boys were isolated from their mothers and brainwashed with an interpretation of Islam that was brutal as well as false.

The Taliban is the product of these madrassas and came to power in the midst of the civil war that followed the withdrawal of the USSR in 1989. Although the Taliban promised that they would disarm the mujahideen and bring peace, instead, they immediately made the country an open prison for women: no education, no work outside of the house and no movement unless accompanied by a male relative. Women had to be covered with burka. Music and television were forbidden. The sports stadium was turned into a field where people were executed for violating Taliban edicts. Afghanistan became the biggest producer of opium in the world and the host of training camps for global terrorist groups.

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After 9/11 and the defeat of the Taliban, and with the help of NATO forces, the government and civil society made significant advances in human rights and freedom, particularly to women and young girls who were able to access education, work and exercise their basic rights. These were the huge first steps toward the establishment of women’s rights and human rights into Afghan society and its institutions. The constitution adopted in 2004 guaranteed equal rights and political representation for women. Domestic violence was criminalized with the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. Women’s participation in various sectors, including education, media, health care, sports, academia, public service and law enforcement grew.

But a multidimensioned strategy for building a democratic Afghanistan was lacking, and most of the programs and policies were quick fix projects. And the Taliban never fully disappeared from the country. Instead, they spent the next 20 years fighting against the people, the newly formed government, and particularly against modernity and democracy as represented by women’s participation in society.

The collapse was not only the result of the abandonment of NATO forces and the U.S. cutting a deal with the Taliban, but also a consequence of systemic internal failures and a fragmented approach to nation-building – which in a multiethnic and war-torn country like Afghanistan is particularly complex. Transforming a society into a stable and functioning state requires a comprehensive approach in addressing political, social and economic issues. Citizens must feel ownership for the initiative. Their participation is vital for success. Clear benchmarks are a necessity. Free and fair elections must follow. Failing to make institutions functional and not tackling corruption enhance the fragility of the state and ultimately its collapse.

The fall of the Afghan Republic serves as a stark reminder of the complexities of state-building in a context of deep-seated political, social and historical challenges. Afghanistan was a collective failure of the Afghan people, Afghanistan government, the international community and UN agencies.

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Together, they lacked the political will to build a democratic peaceful society. There was no cohesive, long-term strategy from the international community and the Afghan government. There was only a limited understanding of Afghanistan’s diverse culture and history. Corruption and nepotism further undermined the government’s effectiveness and legitimacy. It was a formula to hamper progress.

Reconstruction and development efforts, often misaligned with the needs of the Afghan people, focused more on short-term goals rather than sustainable development. The majority of the projects were designed by men and were not gender sensitive. Contracts were given to companies from their own countries, which then subcontracted to Afghan companies. Rather than employing young Afghans in labour-intensive projects and promoting community ownership of the project, the contractors’ profits led to enriching a few commanders and Afghan elites. The involvement of neighbouring countries with conflicting interests further complicated the situation.

Reliance on foreign economic and military aid made Afghanistan vulnerable to shifts in international policies. Millions of dollars were injected into Afghanistan on a weekly basis, but the cash was not monitored and consequently reached the Taliban and their cronies. The Trump administration’s so-called “peace deal” with the Taliban on Feb. 29, 2020, coupled with ineffective management by president Ashraf Ghani’s administration, emboldened the Taliban and hastened the collapse. Despite extensive investment, the security forces, plagued by poor leadership and low morale, were ill-prepared to counter the Taliban insurgency. The rapid withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces in 2021 created a security vacuum, signalling a loss of international commitment.

In Afghanistan, we lost control of our own war

The immediate withdrawal of foreign forces exposed the delicate balance of power in the region, with neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China exerting their influence as active players. Interests and the engagement of regional countries such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and India further complicated the dynamics of geopolitics.

The rapid Taliban takeover has resulted in a catastrophic regression of fundamental rights, gender equality, education and basic freedoms made over the previous two decades. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was converted to the Ministry of Vice and Virtue – a hateful place mandated to enforce the Taliban’s wretched edicts that mostly targeted women and girls and minorities. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was abolished. Everyone knows the status of women and the economy are directly related: where one is flourishing so is the other; where one is failing so is the other. The Taliban have hijacked religion for political opportunism. There is not a word in the Quran to support some of the actions of the Taliban, especially female access to education. They make up the rules and no one challenges them for fear of being accused of interfering with religious rights. The result is an increase in child marriage, forced marriage and domestic violence.

What’s more, by denying girls the right to go to school, the Taliban deprive women of medical care because there will be no women educated as doctors and the Taliban forbid a woman to be in the company of a man who is not her husband, brother or son.

The Taliban regime will do whatever it can to keep itself in power. The misery and suffering of the people mean nothing to them. Although they have no official recognition, Taliban political representatives are operative in 17 countries. The international community and regional countries must address this dichotomy.

We’ve all been quick to call the 20 years the international community spent in Afghanistan a failure. But consider this: In those 20 years, life expectancy increased from 55 to 63 years. Maternal mortality dropped by 50 per cent. Girls and boys went back to school and nation building began. That’s not a failure, it’s a miracle. Afghanistan needs another one.

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