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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Surgeon Is Ready to Rebuild Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Taliban once dismissed her from her job as a top surgeon because she is a woman. Now Suhaila Siddiqi, one of two female Cabinet ministers in the new Afghan government, dismisses them -- with the precision and economy of a scalpel's sweep.

"I knew they could never last," said Siddiqi, shaking her steel-gray head and smiling faintly. "From their actions, it was always clear to me the Taliban would not be able to impose their will forever."

One of Afghanistan's most respected surgeons, the 60-year-old Siddiqi was sworn in Saturday as the country's health minister -- and handed the daunting challenge of presiding over a medical system driven to the point of collapse by warfare and deprivation.

"I want to rehabilitate our hospitals," she said, gesticulating as she ticked off her priorities. "I want to care for our people and help them in every way. And I want women working everywhere."

With a regal bearing and a demeanor that can sometimes be severe -- she held the rank of general under Afghanistan's Soviet-backed administration in the 1980s, and many still use the title when referring to her -- Siddiqi didn't hesitate to stand up to the Taliban.

She was forced to accede when they sent her home from her job as chief of surgery at Wazir Akbar Khan hospital in Kabul -- along with women all over Afghanistan. But within months, they realized their loss, and invited her back to work at one of Kabul's premier medical institutions -- its 400-bed military hospital, where Taliban members themselves often sought treatment.

Colleagues say Siddiqi was never afraid to speak her mind in the presence of the Taliban. As formidable as she can be, colleagues also describe Siddiqi as unstintingly kind, strict but motherly with younger colleagues.

She is also described as unflappable in emergencies, tireless in dealing with the demands of her profession. On one occasion during Afghanistan's 1992-96 civil war, 120 patients poured into the hospital at once, grievously wounded from a rocket attack. She set methodically to work, performing surgery for 24 hours straight.

Women have served in past Afghan governments, but none has had a prominent public role for more than a decade. The civil war shattered the country's institutions, and then came the Taliban.

Born, raised and educated in Kabul, Siddiqi spent only one long stretch outside Afghanistan, completing her medical studies in Russia. Over the years, as Afghanistan fell into one chaotic conflict after another, she had many opportunities to emigrate, she said -- but was never tempted.

"I always felt it was important for all Afghans to stay in their country and serve it," she said. "Now I am hoping that people who left will choose to come back and help. Our country needs us."

Siddiqi does have one regret: she expects her work as health minister will leave her with little or no time to continue practicing medicine.

"But it is worth it -- this is a very large responsibility, and I want to help in the best way I can," she said. "We have to rebuild everything."