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 work with 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 Ansari the 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."