Debunking Bush Administration Bull About Afghanistan

Dr. Sima Samar is a hero to Afghan women. Today, she heads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and her longtime advocacy for human and women's rights continues to upset fundamentalists -- while drawing admiration from feminists worldwide. During a recent visit to the U.S., Samar sat down with Ms. executive editor Katherine Spillar to discuss the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

Eds. Note: The full transcript of this interview is available in the Winter 2007 issue of Ms. Magazine.

Katherine Spillar: The Bush administration maintains that Afghanistan is a success and claims democracy and human rights have replaced terror. But what is the real situation?

Sima Samar: While there have been some positive steps in Afghanistan, there is still a long road ahead. We did adopt a new Afghan Constitution, and it includes an equal-rights provision for women and guarantees women's representation in the Afghan parliament.

The first presidential and parliamentary elections in three decades also were held, with fairly good participation by women, and women were elected to 25 percent of the seats in parliament. However, the elections were flawed. In some districts, only a few women were seen voting. In the parliamentary elections, many human-rights violators and warlords stood for election, and many won seats despite constitutional and regulatory requirements that should have disqualified them.

But the gains that we have made are in jeopardy. Over the last year there has been a significant increase in violence and terrorist attacks. Suicide bombers, who were never present in Afghanistan before, are now killing innocent people throughout the country, even in the streets of Kabul. These tactics of intimidation and outright violence prevent the social, economic and political participation of many Afghans, particularly women....

KS: There was so much hope and optimism in the beginning. What has gone wrong?

SS: People see very little change in their daily lives. They lack food, shelter and work, and this situation has changed little since 2001.

The judiciary also has been filled with corrupt and unqualified judges. People see there is no rule of law, and do not believe there is justice. Human rights problems in Afghanistan remain great: arbitrary arrest, torture, inhuman conditions of detention and the absence of due process.

Not enough Afghan soldiers and police have been trained and they are not paid enough in wages, so they can easily be bribed. Meanwhile, commanders with private armies still rule large sections of the country, even though the militias have been outlawed. The U.S. military entered into agreements with many of these militias, allowing them to remain intact. The commanders protect drug smugglers and extract bribes and illegal "taxes" from people. There are kidnappings and assassinations.

KS: So the U.S. decision to accommodate these regional warlords has contributed to the violence and lack of stability?

SS: Yes, these warlords used their connections to the Americans to commit human-rights violations. There was no monitoring and evaluation of their acts and behavior.

KS: What about progress for women and girls in regaining their rights?

SS: Although things are better today for women and girls than under the Taliban regime, violations of women's rights are still widespread, including forced marriage, child marriage, restrictions on movement, job discrimination and child abduction and trafficking. Domestic violence is very common in Afghanistan.

The women in Afghanistan have little access to law enforcement or the judiciary. Even if women reach the police or judiciary, they are treated as criminals, not as victims. The women who run away from abusive family male members end up in jail or are killed by a family member. The family is then immune from prosecution for this "honor" killing. In order to escape these situations, women try to commit suicide and burn themselves.

Even though women had victories in the parliamentary elections, today there are no women among the advisors to the president and there is now only one woman in the Cabinet (down from three before the parliamentary elections). If women are not part of decision-making, decisions will be made by men who do not understand women's problems, and those men will never address these problems.

KS: What can U.S. feminist groups do?

SS: If not for the intense pressure from women's-rights groups around the world when we were exposing the abuses of the Taliban, when we were developing the Bonn Agreement for a transitional Afghan government, and when we were debating our new Constitution, women would have been entirely omitted. We need solidarity to free women -- solidarity with women everywhere Women must support each other; we are our own class.

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