This Afghan Crusader Should Have Beaten Obama for the Nobel
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her peace work in Afghanistan has outlasted presidents and the longest war in U.S. history.
By Nick Fouriezos
- Sima Samar was the leading candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 until President Barack Obama snagged the award.
- The fierce advocate for Afghanistan’s women and girls remains an effective leader.
For Donald Trump, perhaps nothing would have been a more desirable COVID-19 get-well gift than a Nobel Peace Prize. Alas, Trump did not get the award he has long coveted, passed over again after being nominated each of the last two years — although, one could argue he gets some credit, given that it went to the World Food Programme, headed by David Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina whom the Trump administration nominated for the gig in 2017.
Few serious foreign policy experts argued Trump deserved to win over the United Nations organization that provides food to an average 91.4 million people in 83 countries each year and was instrumental in fighting global hunger during this year’s pandemic. Still, there’s precedent for a U.S. president winning the award with questionable credentials: Barack Obama in 2009, just months into his term. Geir Lundestad, the influential (though nonvoting) secretary of the Nobel committee, later said he regretted the award, which was meant to empower Obama but instead exposed him to intense domestic criticism. “In that sense the committee didn’t achieve what it had hoped for,” Lundestad said.
No such mea culpa would have been necessary if the Nobel committee had trusted the advice of experts and awarded the prize instead to Sima Samar — an Afghan doctor and human rights activist who was “the top pick,” as Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the Oslo-based Peace Research Institute, declared in the organization’s annual rankings in 2010. “A prize to Sima Samar … would make it considerably harder to leave human-rights issues by the roadside.”
Where there is political will, there is a possibility for change.
Her work was, and continues to be, worth the consideration, despite the Nobel committee’s repeated decisions to pass over her. Born in Ghazni province in 1957, Samar was a double minority: not just a woman but also a Hazara, a Persian-speaking ethnic group and one of the most persecuted minorities in Afghanistan.
Yet she rose to become one of the most consequential Afghan activists of the century. She received a medical degree from Kabul University in 1982, the first Hazara woman to do so. And after her husband was arrested (and disappeared) by the Soviet-backed regime, she fled in 1984 to neighboring Pakistan. Working as a doctor treating refugees at Mission Hospital, she created in 1989 the Shuhada Organization and Clinic in Quetta, Pakistan — which treated Afghan women and girls, healing them physically and nourishing them academically.
While spending nearly two decades in exile in Pakistan, Samar still managed to help her compatriots: operating underground home-school classes for Afghan girls in Kabul. And even when she returned in 2002 to serve in a cabinet post for the Afghan Transitional Administration under Hamid Karzai, she continued her advocacy — to the point where she was forced to resign from service as the first-ever Minister for Women’s Affairs while facing death threats for questioning sharia that limited women’s rights. The affair led to her being called the “Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan” — by her religious conservative opponents, of all people, who argued the comparison as damning.
Before leaving, Samar made her mark by helping female employees return to government jobs and girls reenter schools, launching a legal department to protect women and opening craft schools for married women. And by the time February 2009 came around, the then-52-year-old was serving as a chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and as a United Nations special rapporteur investigating human rights concerns in Sudan — in short, becoming a globally recognized crusader.
“It’s not just the last eight years of failed policy but the last 30 years,” Samar said in an early 2009 interview with the Carter Center — refusing to put the blame for Afghanistan’s woes solely on George W. Bush. Instead, she focused on what could be done by Obama, who had just been inaugurated. Advocating a focus on “human security” that fights terrorism through improved educational and humanitarian resources, Samar argued that core needs were still not being met.
“It’s seven years since the fall of the Taliban, and we still don’t have electricity in the capital. We have to provide basic social services and human security to the public,” she said. And Samar, while hoping for improvements under the Obama administration, gave a note of caution to Afghans and outsiders alike who believed the inspiring president would lead to a sea of change. “It’s not going to be easy for anyone to change [the situation in Afghanistan] overnight or even in a year’s time. … But where there is political will, there is a possibility for change.”
Change. The theme that Obama campaigned on — and hope, which became the biggest reason the Nobel committee awarded him their famous prize later that year. But the award became a political disaster. “Even many of Obama’s supporters believed that the prize was a mistake,” Lundestad admitted in his memoir. In fact, Obama, whose first year in office was focused on addressing a domestic economic crisis, was himself surprised. So much so that his staffers considered having him skip the ceremony in Oslo, only attending once it was clear that winners rarely avoided the trek except in dire circumstances.
In the decide since, the situation in Afghanistan has not dramatically improved. American troops remain there today, 19 years after the initial invasion of America’s longest war. Deals with modern Taliban leaders have fallen through and violence continues, even as Trump announced via Twitter on Thursday a promise to bring all troops back from Afghanistan by Christmas. And Samar remains, now serving again in government as Afghanistan’s human rights minister and going unrewarded by Oslo’s Nobel Committee for yet another year.