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Meet The Featured Human Rights Defenders: Sima Samar (Afghanistan)

Tackling the Roots of Afghanistan's Ills

Sima SimarIf there is one person who knows what went wrong in Afghanistan, it's Dr. Sima Samar. She was present when the Russian paratroopers landed in Kabul in 1979 and has watched the landscape of her homeland disintegrate from a trendy hippie playground decked with colorful banners to a barren, rubble-strewn vista layered with relics of war and death.

She doesn't place Afghanistan's woes at the feet of George W. Bush. Afghanistan's problems go back much further than Sept. 11, 2001. "It's not just the last eight years of failed policy but the last 30 years," says the longtime human rights advocate and former deputy premier in the interim government of Hamid Karzai.

The mistakes of the past three decades are only being compounded by the current reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan because the systemic roots of the violence are not being addressed, she says. That is the lesson that the incoming Obama administration must not ignore.

The typical foreign policy approach of today's occupying forces has it all backward. "They are not doing enough development work in provinces where there is some security and no opium production but instead are ignoring them and spending money on the military," she says. "They should really try to invest in building a healthy community in terms of not only physical health but in terms of a healthy society." It is the nation's large numbers of uneducated and poor people resulting from decades of systemic neglect that have produced breeding grounds for terrorism, and as long as social issues continue to be ignored, the pool of potential terrorist recruits will not shrink. Even the terminology of the current approach is a misnomer, says Dr. Samar.

"I have to be very frank and say that reconstruction is not really the appropriate word, because Afghanistan was not constructed in the first place," she says.

There is a need for a complete rethink in how the United States approaches the Afghanistan situation and a "better, broader approach to the war on terrorism" in general, says Dr. Samar. The approach she and many others familiar with the link between poverty and extremism advocate is to focus not only on military security but also on improving human security.

Human security is a model first officially set out in a 1994 U.N. Development Program report in 1994 but is based on concepts long known to human rights advocates working in marginalized regions. The concept aims to expand the security paradigm from its traditional focus on the state to a broader definition that also includes the security of people's lives within national borders. Another report by the Commission on Human Security in 2003 reiterated that economic, social, and cultural rights were equally as vital as civil rights in securing human freedoms.

In Afghanistan's case, Dr. Samar sees the human security paradigm as key to disrupting the link between poverty and violence. If poverty and ignorance can be reduced and economic opportunities increased, then the ranks of young men who drift into extremism will likely drop.

"We need access to education, access to health care, access to roads, access to electricity," she says. "It's seven years since the fall of the Taliban, and we still don't have electricity in the capital (of Kabul). We have to provide basic social services and human security to the public."

Hopes are high that given Barack Obama's work with socially and economically marginalized groups in Chicago, the new U.S. administration will recognize the efficacy of promoting human security abroad as key to empowering nations like Afghanistan to break the cycle of violence.

"If the new administration seriously engaged in promoting economic, social, and cultural rights, such an agenda would be very beneficial," says Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

One of the first things Dr. Samar would like to see is the U.S. government making an effort to support the next democratic elections in Afghanistan. A healthy process is already considered at risk as the vote has been delayed beyond the timeline set out in the constitution to the latter half of 2009. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in hiding, has called for a boycott of the elections. Dr. Samar fears that the Afghan people will finally lose hope in democracy if the United States does not support local groups that have a genuine democratic agenda for the future. An unsuccessful election could be a decisive blow and a tragic end to the renewed optimism that many Afghans have following Obama's historic election.

Still, Dr. Samar has no illusions about how difficult the task of the incoming U.S. administration will be given the rapid implosion of the economy and its continuing fallout. "It's not going to be easy for anyone to change (the situation in Afghanistan) overnight or even in a year's time," she says. "But where there is political will, there is a possibility for change."

A key problem with the current U.S. administration has been a lack of political support for those groups in Afghanistan that believe in democracy and human rights. Instead, the United States has continued to support the same highly conservative elements that it first supported during the war against the U.S.S.R., she says. "The United States created these monsters and then, unfortunately, after 9/11 continued to support the same people."

Indeed, this is a common problem in U.S. policy across the region. Pakistan is another country where the United States. has provided key political support to groups instrumental in fostering Islamic military radicalism. The reputation of the United States for supporting militarists among local human rights and democracy advocates must be addressed in a broad sense, says Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University. "We need to have a regional approach – this is not just an isolated Afghan issue," he says.

The key is to avoid the policy mistakes that U.S. administrations dating back to the 1970s have made. "The new administration must learn from the past and make sure that the principles of human rights are common across all countries and are not negotiable," says Dr. Samar.

UPDATED February 2009.

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