When she heard that the Taliban had won the vote for new national leaders, Khalida Popal thought her country was falling into “hell.” She told The Washington Post’s Michael D. Shear in a recent profile that her parents were away in Karachi, and she had never seen them since the Taliban took over Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
But on the phone, Popal, now in her 40s, sounded hopeful. It was a true relief that the Taliban had somehow lost the vote, she said, a unity that could set the country’s future on a more hopeful path. But Popal knew the vote was so flawed because the election was run by the U.S. and other outside interests.
“The politicians are the ones who for the last 16 years have been running Afghanistan,” Popal said, naming the United States and other nations who carried out the war.
A second-generation Afghan from her home in Kabul, Popal has more than 35 years of diplomatic service in Europe and Asia, which left her well-acquainted with the public affairs aspect of foreign policy. As the head of the Afghan government’s women’s affairs office, Popal participated in two rounds of the negotiations to open Afghan embassies in Washington and Paris, the only time the government made a public show of reaching out to women. But after those gains were made, after 20 years of war, Afghan women and girls seemed to be losing ground at a time when they needed help the most.
As Popal recalls the journey to school for herself, she talks about it with strong emotion. A woman was married off to her brother when she was 9. The family had to escape the countryside to reach the capital city. They lived in safe houses and in refugee camps.
They went through three marriages. One was in the soccer field. In 1990, Popal started playing for Afghanistan in what is now known as the Women’s World Cup. They won it.
That wasn’t the last time Popal played a key role in her country’s history. In 1997, the Taliban forced girls out of school and imprisoned her. Her family accepted her, though, for she had trained with the Kabul University Olympics team, which the Taliban won two years later, despite the fact that her school did not have classes. Her father explained the situation to her.
“He told me, ‘You are a pious Muslim, because you are playing on the field, you are having fun. You will be able to get through this, though, and the Taliban will be defeated one day,’” Popal said.
Popal studied law and became a diplomat in both Pakistan and Nepal. That career afforded her access to Pakistan’s high and military echelons, including Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was still the general. Musharraf was an ally in the war against the Taliban, although Popal stressed their relationship was all about politics, not friendship. She said Pakistan also always had its eye on Afghanistan and opposed the west’s attempts to control Afghanistan. She said she and Musharraf also had different ideas about what women and girls should be allowed to do. He wanted to allow them to get married when they grew up. Popal wanted them to stay in school until they graduated, because Afghanistan had so many young women educated in other countries who could return and help change their country.
That she could promote herself as a woman who needed to be respected in a country with such a serious problem around women’s rights, Popal said, is significant.
“I’m fighting for my country,” she said. “I am fighting for my rights.”
Popal said she has an unwavering belief in the country’s ability to make a democratic recovery.
“Afghanistan is a beautiful country,” she said. “It has so much wealth, so much talent.”
On her day off, Popal tells her children she is going to a concert and takes pictures with visitors, taking pride in being able to engage with people they normally wouldn’t see because she is a woman.
“Afghanistan will find its way forward,” she said. “Nobody can take Afghanistan’s wealth away from us.”