Shukria Barakzai to Asharq Al-Awsat: I was on Taliban’s Hated List

Former Afghan Ambassador and Deputy Shukria Barakzai (Exclusive – Asharq Al-Awsat)
Former Afghan Ambassador and Deputy Shukria Barakzai (Exclusive – Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Shukria Barakzai to Asharq Al-Awsat: I was on Taliban’s Hated List

Former Afghan Ambassador and Deputy Shukria Barakzai (Exclusive – Asharq Al-Awsat)
Former Afghan Ambassador and Deputy Shukria Barakzai (Exclusive – Asharq Al-Awsat)

Shukria Barakzai, the former Afghan ambassador to Norway and a human rights activist, said she was on the Taliban's wanted list after the fall of Kabul in 2021, and attributed her successful escape from the Afghan capital to the assistance provided by the British.

“I was on the (Taliban’s) hated list, and they were looking for me after the fall of Kabul, in August 2021, until I was able to leave the Afghan capital thanks to the help of the British,” Shukria Barakzai, who is also ethnic Pashtun parliamentarian, told Asharq Al-Awsat in an exclusive interview.

In November 2014, Barakzai survived a suicide car bombing during the tenure of former President Ashraf Ghani, who condemned the terrorist attack.

The explosion, which took place a few meters away from the parliament headquarters in Kabul, failed to achieve its goal of killing the Afghan parliamentarian and journalist, but led to the death of three civilians and the injury of 22 others, most of whom were university students.

Answering Asharq Al-Awsat’s questions via voice messages on WhatsApp from London, Barakzai said: “It was not only the Taliban that threatened me, but also the corruption mafia and businessmen whom I exposed under the dome of parliament... They hate me, and I always knew that, but I didn’t pay much attention to their criticism.”

Commenting on the current situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban, she stated: “This group does not have any kind of definition of the type of state they pursue, the type of rights and duties that citizens enjoy, and what the (Taliban) as an actual government can offer (to the people).”

“In addition, the (Taliban) regime has not gained any kind of recognition from the international community and neighboring countries. As for the women of Afghanistan, they have been erased from (public) life, from work, education, social space and politics. Unfortunately, the dramatic change reveals to us the deep challenges facing our country,” the former diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Barakzai recounted that she was in the country when the Taliban seized power. She stayed at Kabul Airport during the evacuations in August 2021, until she was able to get out via a military plane to Brize Norton Airport in Britain.

“I was not someone who could hide his name, face, or voice. I was very familiar to the Afghan people, including members of the Taliban. It was a big challenge for me, and the (Taliban) members were chasing me. I was on their hatred list... Fortunately, the United Kingdom made a lot of efforts for me inside Afghanistan, and (eventually) I was evacuated to London with the help of the British and Americans,” she said.

Barakzai has five children, who all live in Europe. She noted that her eldest daughter was married and working in medicine, while her second daughter was a university student and the third was preparing to join the university.

She said in this regard: “Fortunately, none of my children decided to work in the political field, because they probably know what the life of a politician would be like. However, they are all women’s rights and human rights activists. They also show more concern for the environment. Therefore, they understand what it means to be a responsible citizen.”

Recalling the day when she was attacked and injured in Kabul before she left Afghanistan, Barakzai told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I remember that moment, November 16, 2014... It was in the morning, exactly at 10, and I remember how one was paying a heavy price for raising his voice against warlords and tycoons, drugs and the Taliban, that is, against all forms of extremism. This wasn’t the first attack against me, but it was a wake-up call for other women inside Afghanistan.”

She concluded: “The truth is that accepting women in a male dominated society like Afghanistan is not an easy task, but I will never give up. We will not concede, not only me, but I am talking about the women of Afghanistan. Of course, we will have more women in parliament if fair elections are held.”



Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.