To what extent should questions of honour, duty, and friendship enter into Canada’s foreign policy? It’s the old problem of principle versus realism, and every country needs to find its own balance between the two. It helps, though, if that balance is understood by your international partners, especially the ones you are supposedly trying to help.
The question was raised anew last weekend at the Taj Banquet Hall, a weddings/parties/everything venue attached to a Kia dealership in north Toronto where 250 or so people, most of whom were Afghan Canadians, had gathered to listen to a debate on the future of Canada’s mission to Afghanistan.
The event was organized by the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, and I was there to moderate a panel that included Bob Rae, Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan (and now federal Conservative nominee) Chris Alexander, and the B.C. journalist and CASC co-founder Terry Glavin. The keynote address was given by Jawed Ludin, the Afghan ambassador to Canada.
The discussion was pegged to a new paper, written by Alexander, called “Ending The Agony: Seven Moves To Stabilize Afghanistan.” In the paper, Alexander lays out what he sees as the international priorities for success in Afghanistan, which include ensuring fair elections, renewing the public service, and doing a better job coordinating the civilian and military missions.
It’s fairly obvious stuff, which is why the question at issue was not what should be done over there, but what role Canada should play. After all, while there is a parliamentary resolution requiring the termination of only our combat mission in Kandahar province, every political party in Ottawa has encouraged the widespread perception that it demands the end of our entire military mission. Meanwhile, despite various trial balloons flown from NATO headquarters and explicit requests from the Americans that we consider staying in Kandahar or maybe moving to a different province, the government has shut down the beginnings of any debate.
And so the people of Afghanistan could be forgiven for feeling that Canada is preparing to abandon them. This was clear from the opening remarks by one of the organizers, Babur Mawladin. I expected the slightly nervous, bespectacled fellow to say a few words of welcome before turning the microphone over to the speakers. Instead, he gave a 10-minute stemwinder, in Dari and in English, that had them pounding on the tables. “We made mistakes,” he yelled. “But we did not make a mistake when we freed Afghanistan, and the job is not done. We must finish the job, and we must do it right.”
That was a prelude to Ludin’s opening remarks. When things go well, said Ludin, for his part, we all like to take the credit. But when things go rough, “the critical thing, the honourable thing, is to stay committed.” Yes, he conceded, Canada has suffered, but you can’t leave because things have got hard. “Canada has been a friend to Afghanistan in good times; we need Canada to be a friend in bad times.”
Ludin, too, got a huge cheer from the gathering. And he was followed by Najia Haneefi, the former director of the Women’s Educational Centre in Kabul, the largest women’s organization in Afghanistan, who now works out of Ottawa. She likewise pleaded with Canada to stay in her country. Not only would a premature pullout be perceived negatively by the Afghan people and our NATO allies, she said, but it would also undermine all of the work we have done so far.
Bob Rae was clearly annoyed with the suggestion that Canada is abandoning Afghanistan next year, describing it as a “misleading assessment of what we have done or are proposing.” He stated flatly that there is no question that while it is time for the combat mission to end, Canada will continue to be engaged as much as possible. In what manner? That depends, he said, on what happens this summer with the surge in Kandahar, with the scheduled parliamentary elections, and with progress on other fronts.
Events, in other words. In Ottawa, meanwhile, Stephen Harper simply does not want to talk about Afghanistan; his defence minister is openly contradicting him on the file; and the only thing Bob Rae’s colleagues on the parliamentary committee on Afghanistan are interested in is what ambassador Ludin described, with a sigh that spoke not volumes but entire libraries, as “the detainees saga.” Meanwhile, the military continues to make preparations for its departure and our development and governance teams on the civilian side mark time waiting for the vaguest of signs of what is to come.
The truth is, Canada’s self-image as a liberal internationalist nation was always vastly oversold. We joined the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 as part of an effort to rid the country of the Taliban regime that had terrorized the country and harboured Islamic terrorists. It was originally billed as an exercise of aggressive self-defence, to deny al-Qaeda a base from which to launch further attacks on the West, as well as an easy way of ensuring our position in world affairs.
But over the past decade, our mission there has taken on a character that is in many ways far more about morality than enlightened self-interest. The goals of our adventure in Central Asia are now explicitly dedicated to bringing peace, stability, and national reconciliation to Afghanistan. It might surprise Canadians to learn that many Afghans take that commitment quite seriously.