“Imminent Danger” in Afghanistan: Kamila Sidiqi in Conversation With Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

“Imminent Danger” in Afghanistan: Entrepreneur Kamila Sidiqi in Conversation With Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
A demonstration of students at Sayed Al-Shuhada school before the bombing holding signs in support of girls’ education. (Courtesy of Zareen Taj)

Editor’s note: On Saturday, May 8, a series of bomb attacks rocked the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan. The blasts—three car bombs in front of the Sayed Al-Shuhada school—specifically targeted young girls. As of Monday morning, at least 85 people had been killed and 147 injured—most of whom were young girls. The attack came at the end of a particularly violent week in the country which resulted in the death of at least 44 civilians and 139 government forces, marking the highest weekly death toll since October.

The escalating tensions and violence have only been made worse by the recent Biden administration decision to withdraw troops from the region by September 11 of this year. Bipartisan consensus from members of Congress (particularly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), from foreign policy experts, and from many Afghans, including the Afghan women participating in the peace negotiations, warn that a quick U.S. withdrawal without a final peace agreement and ceasefire will create a vacuum of leadership in the country for the Taliban to fill—which would do major harm to U.S. counter-terrorism operations, as well the future of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

The interview below was conducted just days before the Kabul weekend attack, and gives a sense of the simultaneous sense of fear, hope and dread on the ground in Afghanistan.

The interviewee, Kamila Sidiqi, is an Afghan serial entrepreneur who has founded multiple companies and worked to advance the rights of Afghans by creating jobs and supporting women and girls through business. She served as deputy minister of commerce under Ashraf Ghani and is the protagonist of the book ‘The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,’ which told the story of her home dressmaking business which supported families around her neighborhood in Kabul in the late 1990s under the Taliban.

Interviewer Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of ‘The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.’ She began writing about the role of Afghan women and girls, including girls’ education, women’s entrepreneurship and maternal health, in 2005.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: How long have you been back in Kabul and how long were you away from Kabul before that?

Kamila Sidiqi: I have lived in Afghanistan all my life. recently, I went to London for holidays with my family. because of the pandemic and quarantine, I stayed in London for six months.

Lemmon: What is it like in Kabul now? How is the mood and how does it compare to other times in your hometown’s history?

Sidiqi: People are very concerned about the situation these days. They don’t know what direction their country is going. They lost a lot of people in wars before, and they are really worried about the imminent danger of another fight.

“Imminent Danger” in Afghanistan: Kamila Sidiqi in Conversation With Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Demonstrators in Afghanistan with signs that read: “Don’t kill us for love of learning and being Hazara” and “Our school must be secure.” (Courtesy of Zareen Taj)

Lemmon: How did the announcement about U.S. forces affect your plans for the future?

Sidiqi: I think we got a lot of support from U.S. during this time, and they supported us a lot. This is the time for the people of Afghanistan to rise up to the occasion. Yes, there is complexity and uncertainty, but we should start our work and come together as one nation and think about the unity of our people.

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Lemmon: How are people around you responding to the news?

Sidiqi: Everyone is so concerned about the escalation in war and violence after the U.S. announced the withdrawal of their troops. The security situation has gone from bad to worse. We lose lots of people every day. No place is safe and secure. We have a very good army that has been supported by U.S. and we need that support to continue in the future.

Lemmon: What do you think the next year will bring for women in Afghanistan?

Sidiqi: If we have the support of international community especially the U.S., women will work and go to university and school like today because women have changed a lot, they are not the women of 20 years ago. They are now actively working in every sector such as education, teaching technology, medical, management and so on.

Lemmon: What can the U.S. do aside from keeping forces there that would make a difference for you? What should the U.S. and the international community do?

Sidiqi: We need the U.S. to keep supporting our army and help us to keep all our 20-year achievements intact which are very important for us. If we have peace and security, we can work better and harder and bring changes in our country.

The world should know that we are humans and have exactly the same rights as they have. our children have the same expectations to live in peace, and have all the possibilities to enjoy their life and have a better future. They desperately need the support of international community.

Lemmon: What business are you focused on now?

Sidiqi: Currently, I am running three businesses. First, I have a consulting company, Kaweyan Business Development Services, where we work on capacity building, create employment opportunities and help women to start their own business.  Second, we have an export company, Nawyan Naweed Limited, where we export dry fruit from Afghanistan to different countries. Last, we have a taxi company, Kawyan Cabs- the first taxi company in Kabul City, which operates within Kabul City.

Lemmon: What did you learn from serving in government?

Sidiqi: I have learned how to manage 10,000 people and work with 10 different directories, which was my main responsibility as a deputy-chief of staff in the palace. In addition, I learned how to be involved in the process of decision making, work with policy makers and communicate with different ministries and intentional organizations. I also represented Afghanistan in different international conferences as a deputy minister of commerce supporting private sector development in Afghanistan.

Lemmon: What is the reaction people there have to U.S. discussion about Afghanistan?

Sidiqi: People are really concerned about U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Everyone has a fear of a possible civil war in the country if negotiations fail. People expect the U.S. to stay until the warring sides reach a peaceful settlement.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.