For Omar Sadr, the Center for Governance and Markets (CGM) and its Afghanistan Project provides an opportunity to not only continue his academic career, but to contribute a uniquely Afghan voice to scholarship regarding the embattled country. The Afghanistan Project is an initiative of CGM and the Global Studies Center's Pittsburgh Network for Threatened Scholars (PiNTS) that seeks to preserve intellectual communities in academia and policy that were Afghanistan that are now in exile due to the Taliban takeover of that country. It provides a platform for scholars and policy thinkers to engage in their work, speaking to academic and policy audiences but also allowing them to continue to dialogue on issues related to Afghanistan.
Sadr was born in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. He attended primary and secondary school there and completed his undergraduate studies in law and political science at Kabul University.
“I was born around the fall of the previous government of Afghanistan, the communist regime, and then grew up in Kabul throughout the years of civil war and instability,” Sadr said. “So personally, I experienced several political ups and downs, including the fall of the communist regime, and then the coming of mujahideen, and then the first phase of the Taliban and then back to a Republican system in 2001, and then again, unfortunately, the fall of our third republic on the 15th of August.”
Hoping to broaden his perspectives and continue his academic pursuits, Sadr chose to go abroad for his master’s studies. He enrolled at South Asian University in 2011, a university founded by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). There, Sadr was exposed to a new country and population, but also to new ways of interpreting scholarship. Upon completion of his master’s degree, Sadr decided to pursue a PhD there, which he earned in 2017.
While he enjoyed his time in India, Sadr chose to return to Kabul to begin his academic career in earnest. He said he felt a sense of responsibility to his home country and believed that Afghanistan was an ideal location for young professionals like himself seeking to do impactful work.
“It’s a mix of emotional attachment but also sort of personal commitment toward the people, where [I believed] what I learned should also contribute back to the people,” Sadr said. “What I felt was that if I contribute something it will be quite meaningful to contribute to Kabul, where people required, for example, human capital, resources, people who have fresh PhDs, professionals to help the people elevate their status in different sectors, particularly education; Afghanistan has much to do in that sense. So, my primary assumption was that I will be much more productive in Kabul, both in terms of how I can apply my research—because Afghanistan is not very theorized, there’s not very much study, it’s a very under-theorized country—so for scholars of social science, political science, if you want to do something new, countries like Afghanistan are vital ground for it.”
After returning to Kabul, Sadr worked as a researcher at a think tank called the Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS), where he first met the University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Jennifer Murtazashvili. He also worked as an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. There, he taught courses related to political theory, democracy, democratization, state building and post-conflict governance, and political reform—all subjects still encapsulated by Sadr’s research interests.
Due to the pandemic, courses were taught online. Despite this challenge, however, Sadr said that he taught an enthusiastic group of students from diverse backgrounds who were eager to generate positive change in Afghanistan.
“We had a very vibrant, very intelligent, thoughtful batch of students. Their goal was to contribute back to the society in a positive manner, to learn something, to challenge traditional norms, to come out of the box, and do something new,” Sadr said.
Fall of Kabul
While Sadr and his students worked for a new vision of Afghanistan, however, forces beyond their control pulled the country in the opposite direction. The Taliban maintained influence in provinces outside of Kabul. After President Biden announced that American troops would leave the country by September 2021, the group aggressively moved to seize territory. Provinces of Afghanistan began falling to the Taliban in rapid succession, allowing the militants to close in on a panicked Kabul.
“We were not sure about the moment of the fall or when the fall would happen. It might happen tomorrow, but maybe in months,” Sadr said. “So, the basic word to characterize the situation was uncertainty. Nothing was certain but of course things were not moving in the right direction. Every day it was getting worse and worse and worse. There was a sense of panic, chaos.”
Predicting a victorious outcome for the Taliban’s offensive, Sadr applied to the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), a global program that arranges, funds, and supports fellowships for threatened and displaced scholars at partnering higher education institutions worldwide. When Sadr applied in June, SRF worked primarily with Syrian and Iraqi scholars. Sadr was told that the organization would review his case and monitor the situation in Afghanistan. As he waited, the Taliban continued to make territorial gains, eventually surrounding Kabul. American forces left the country, and the Afghan political leadership fled abroad.
“It is like things falling apart in front of your eyes. The things you have worked for, you were part of building,” Sadr said. “A generation worked in Afghanistan. A generation worked for a better Afghanistan, a generation struggled for human rights, a generation struggled for a democratic nation, a generation struggled for peace. And all of a sudden you see that what you struggled for is going down just in a matter of days or a matter of seconds. And nothing remains there. It’s so painful, and you don’t have the means and powers to prevent it, because somehow, it’s systematic, out of the control of one person. It was really painful, but we couldn’t do anything.”
A lost passport made Sadr’s exit from the country nearly impossible. With the help of evacuating Indian embassy staff, however, he escaped Afghanistan as the Taliban took the city and returned to India. As part of his original application for SRF, Sadr cited Dr. Jen Murtazashvili, who he met through his work at AISS, as a contact. He was approved to work with her at the University of Pittsburgh and after having his passport replaced and visa approved, Sadr left India for Pittsburgh on October 27 with his immediate family.
While Sadr emphasized his gratitude for his position at the University of Pittsburgh, he admits that the circumstances of his arrival made the experience difficult.
“That excitement, full excitement, was no longer there. It was not a normal way of just applying for a scholarship, getting it, and then you normally leave your job and are joining a new position. Of course, I was happy, at least I secured something where it provided the opportunity and platform and work in a place where I can collaborate with Jen, for example. But at the same time, I am dealing with all this uncertainty,” Sadr said. “I mean, every day I wake up with anxiety. How to deal, for example, with the new circumstances. How to think about your family's safety, your own safety, and then also deal with uncertain procedures. The state has its own logic—it doesn’t matter whether you are A or B or C, it doesn’t matter, but you are a person and you are an alien. So, every day it was uncertainty, anxiety, how to deal with this sense of statelessness, where you don’t have any institution to protect you.”
An anchor in Sadr’s new life in Pittsburgh is his work. He still teaches remotely at American University of Afghanistan, although he admits that enrollment decreased following the fall of Kabul. Sadr is also a Senior Scholar at CGM, where he hopes that his understanding of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan will help him contribute meaningfully to scholarship on Afghanistan in a way that benefits the country moving forward.
“My research has always remained focused on Afghanistan. The primary reference point of my research is Afghanistan, whether it’s democracy, whether it's about governance, whether it's about political reform. Afghanistan was one of the cases where I have constantly studied,” Sadr said. “I mean at this moment of uncertainty, there are so many things, there are so many questions now that we don’t know the answers to. And I think that scholars and researchers and policy analysts, now they should come up with answers. I think one of the contributions that I can have is to engage with some of these questions. And also to produce, to reorient the knowledge in a very emancipatory manner. Knowledge always does not always serve the emancipation of the people, knowledge can also be destructive, knowledge can also be oppressive. As a scholar, I am thinking of how knowledge can enhance the livelihood of the people, and can answer some of these questions which deal with survival of the people, betterment of their life and all that.”
Currently, Sadr is interested in studying protest movements under the Taliban in Afghanistan and how civilians negotiate civil rights with authoritarian leadership. Sadr emphasized that through his work with the Center for Governance and Markets, he wants to generate scholarship that keeps alive the spirit of Afghanistan’s free thinkers and those who still believe in a brighter future for the country.
“This community that is now emerging in CGM and in the scholars that are supported with SRF, how is that helping to maintain and sustain this community who is under threat, why is it important to support them and to help them to survive and to continue their scholarship, their freedom of thinking and all that,” Sadr said. “This endeavor is not just humanitarian, it’s a struggle for human rights, it’s a struggle for freedom of expression. What CGM is doing, what SRF is doing, it’s not just saving lives for humanitarian matters. It’s a struggle for a free world, for protection of human rights, freedom of thought, freedom of thinking.”
By Abby Land