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Former Minister of Women's Affairs outlines the historical changes in Afghanistan


It's been nearly a year since U.S. forces left Afghanistan, leaving the country in the hands of the Taliban. And for many, the discussion of the country's current situation starts with the September 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion 20 years ago. But the roots of the country's current crisis go back even further.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan began in the late '60s, as the elite in Kabul embraced a Western way of life and the youth dreamed of a socialist revolution.

RASCOE: That revolution led to communist rule and a decade-long Soviet occupation. The country became grounds for a proxy war between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, which paved the way for a foreign-funded civil war, the creation of the Taliban and the rise of al-Qaida. All of this history, with a trove of archival footage, is brought to life in a new four-part PBS documentary series, "Afghanistan: The Wounded Land," which starts airing today. We're joined now by Sima Samar, a human rights advocate and Afghanistan's former minister of women's affairs, who is included in the series. Welcome.

SIMA SAMAR: Thank you very much.

RASCOE: You grew up and studied medicine in a really dramatically different Afghanistan. Can you talk about what Afghanistan was like and what you thought was going to happen with your life?

SAMAR: Yes. Afghanistan was, of course, as a poor country and a small country, but we never had this kind of fundamentalism or extremists in the country. So I'd gone to coeducational school when I was young. It's - I'm 66 now. So imagine that 60 years ago, there was coeducation for boys and girls in Helmand, in a very conservative area where today, the girls are not allowed to go to school.

RASCOE: During the Soviet occupation - you said something in the documentary that I found very interesting - that women were used as a political tool by both the Soviets and the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets. Can you tell us a bit about that?

SAMAR: Yes. I think when Soviet came, they tried to use the slogan that women cannot be free. And they wanted women to be more on the stage rather than really building their capacity. And then tried to impose, by force, the literacy course for women. When it was gone to the conservative areas, the people stand against it. Instead of that, the mujahedeen completely opposed women's participation on anything. There was no attention paid to education, which I personally believe, if you want, really, to destroy a nation, you destroy the education system.

RASCOE: You ended up leaving Afghanistan and moving to Pakistan. How difficult was that decision for you?

SAMAR: Well, it was very difficult because I had to leave Kabul for safety. So I was in Pakistan for 17 years as a refugee. Then, in Pakistan, I started some other projects - running clinics for women and children. And then I started some school for the girls - for refugee girls. What I did actually - I start school for the boys first. And then when I saw that the people are interested, I said, if you don't send your daughters, then I'm not going to support only the boys schools.

RASCOE: Oh, wow. So that was a way to get the....


RASCOE: ...To get them to do it, yeah.

SAMAR: To convince them.

RASCOE: To convince them, wow. After the Taliban was ousted by the U.S., there was a creation of a new government. You were named minister of women's affairs, and you're starting from scratch. I mean, you said you didn't even have a bombed-out office to go back to. There was no office. So how do you even start that?

SAMAR: I decided to accept the job because I wanted to prove that we are able to do the work. I went to Kabul. And it took a few months - I mean, at least two months to get an office. Give me one desk, one computer and one chair and one satellite telephone.

RASCOE: Oh, my gosh. And then they say, run this bureau from there with that?

SAMAR: Yes, yes.


SAMAR: But I faced a lot of resistance because I was calling for accountability and justice and ending the culture of impunity. That was - people who were in the government, they didn't like that.

RASCOE: What goes through your mind when you see the return of the Taliban, you see girls being kept out of secondary schools, women out of work and government and all of these very strict rules on women being put back in place?

SAMAR: Imagine that the girls who now - who are not allowed to go anywhere and continue their education - but because of education they got and they know that they will be punished, the non-violent reaction to all these oppression is there. And then, after 20 years, with all the sacrifice that we had, we left everything back to the Taliban.

RASCOE: You issued a really stark warning at one point during the series. I think we have a clip of it.


SAMAR: If you look at the people who were on the plane who committed suicide and killed more than 3,000 people in New York, none of them were Afghan. None of them were Afghan. All of them been in Afghanistan. And why that has happened? Because Afghanistan was forgotten. And if, again, Afghanistan is forgotten and isolated, no guarantee that it will not happen.

RASCOE: Do you think that lesson from decades ago about not forgetting Afghanistan - do you think that is being heard by the international community?

SAMAR: Abandoning Afghanistan in 1990s - we saw the reasons. I'm afraid that Afghanistan would be, once again, in the position that violent extremist group - terrorist group will organize themselves over there. I don't think the Taliban will be able to control it.

RASCOE: That's Sima Samar, Afghanistan's former minister of women's affairs. She's among the voices featured in the four-part PBS documentary "Afghanistan: The Wounded Land." Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SAMAR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.