Maclean’s Interview: Tooryalai Wesa

Kandahar’s new Governor, Tooryalai Wesa, talks to John Geddes about his hopes, his safety and what he misses about B.C.

Tooryalai Wesa

Agriculture expert Tooryalai Wesa, 58, grew up in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, but has lived in Coquitlam, B.C., for 13 years. After spending much of the past four years back in Afghanistan working as a development consultant, he was appointed Kandahar’s governor late last year.

Q: You were in Europe in 1991, with your wife and three daughters, when mujahedeen fighters overthrew what had been the Russian-backed government in Kabul. How did you end up in Canada?

A: We went first to Switzerland. I applied to different universities in Canada and luckily the University of British Columbia accepted me as a Ph.D. student, and we moved to Vancouver. It was a hard time—no word of English, three children. My wife was a professional medical doctor, but she wasn’t able to practise. In 2002, I completed my program. I taught for a year or so in the Asian studies department of UBC, then started working as a consultant on Afghanistan with international organizations.

Q: And that work brought you to President Hamid Karzai’s attention?

A: My last assignment was from October 2006 until September 2007 in Kandahar. After that I needed to go back home for family responsibilities. When I was leaving Afghanistan, I met President Karzai and he asked me to work for his government. I told him I could not because I had responsibilities at home. Then, last year, during the first week of December, President Karzai’s secretary called and said, “The president wants you here.” I got a ticket for Dec. 15, I was in Kabul Dec. 17, I met the president Dec. 18. He offered me this job. I came to Kandahar on Dec. 19, and here I am.

Q: What made you want to go back, leaving a safe, relatively easy life in Canada for such a difficult task in Kandahar?

A: Everybody asks me this question. I had been in Canada since 1995. But still I was always working on Afghanistan. Now is the time that the country needs us. As a person who grew up here, now is the time to share what I have. Plus, in addition to my knowledge, my education, I know the people here. I know the social structure here, the tribal structure. I can connect easily to the people here. The people will tell me things they will never tell to an expat. Right now I’m a bridge between my two homes, Canada and Afghanistan.

Q: What has changed in Kandahar since you were a kid growing up there?

A: I first came back in 2006, after 17 years away. People were so lost, so worried. They had been through a lot—the drought, the fighting. Many of them lost family members. Two of my younger brothers were here. It was difficult for me when I went to their homes to meet their families. They were staring at me. They didn’t know me until I introduced myself, and we talked and got used to each other. The buildings I remembered [in Kandahar City] were mostly destroyed. Slowly, slowly, I got invited in by people from my home district, Arghandab. I mentioned some names I remembered from my village, my grandfather’s name. They were very supportive.

Q: You’re a highly educated agriculture specialist now, but you started out life in a rural village. When you came home to Kandahar, did you find the traditional rhythms of life as you remembered them?

A: I remember the connection within the farming family. They were learning from each other, grandfather, to father, to son. These connections were not there because a large gap had developed. During these last 20, 25 years, most of the farmers replaced their agricultural equipment with guns. It was hard to bring them back, to push them back to their farms. They were making more money with their guns.

Q: How?

A: Militias, different warlords, smuggling. It was easy money for them rather than working hard on the farm. And people were growing poppies, because there was no market now for other agricultural products, no connection between farms and the market. Roads were destroyed, bridges were destroyed.

Q: You’re a Pashtun, and those of us following the news from Afghanistan have come to think of the Pashtuns as a warlike people, hard to govern. What would you say to those who have that impression?

A: Pashtun is a peculiar nationality. They are people of their word. If you promise something, you will do it, no matter what it costs you. They are not war-lovers. They are trying to defend their rights, their property, their privileges.

Q: What about Kandahar itself? We picture it as a sort of wild frontier.

A: In history, the politics of Afghanistan is controlled from Kandahar. This was the capital of Afghanistan 200 years ago. Most of the kings in the history of Afghanistan were from Kandahar. Even the Taliban. President Karzai’s family is from this area.

Q: What are your top priorities for making progress in Kandahar now?

A: I’m very focused on bringing security to the people. That’s why I have regular meetings once a week with the National Army, the National Police, plus the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], plus the provincial council, plus the tribal leaders.

Other than that, I will be focused on agriculture. Kandahar is very famous for its agricultural products, but the infrastructure is completely destroyed. I’ll try to connect farms to markets by creating some roads. The [Canadian-funded] Dahla irrigation dam project is huge. It will bring a tremendous change in the situation of Kandahar. It will start hopefully by mid-March, and will include 10,000 seasonal workers, and 10,000 hectares of land will be irrigated there.

Education will be the other item. We lost a very large percentage of the educated population. They left the country. There are hundreds like me if you look at Toronto, if you look at Ottawa, California, the East Coast. Those who were left here were taken by the NGOs, because of the high salaries. What was left for the government are all the leftovers. We can’t find more qualified people. That’s a problem for the government.

Q: How will you get the educated workforce you need?

A: Kandahar University here is important. I’m trying to connect to Canadian universities. I talked to [Minister of International Co-operation] Bev Oda, and also to [Defence Minister] Peter MacKay when he was here, and when [Trade Minister] Stockwell Day called to congratulate me, I also discussed it with him. Hopefully we’ll connect our medical school to one of the Canadian schools, probably UBC. I’m intending to talk to the University of Guelph, which has a good record in agriculture and development in Third World countries. I’m planning to establish an advanced agricultural technology centre, plus an agricultural high school.

Q: Those sound like long-term goals. Are there things you can accomplish quickly?

A: I’ve started 15 km of road to be paved inside the city. I’m planning to pave three kilometres each month. People are so happy about that. For the past two weeks I’ve restored three or four hours of electricity in the night, three or four hours in the daytime. People are so happy about that.

Q: While you go about your work, how big a concern is your personal security?

A: One thing is distributed equally among human beings: there’s no discrimination in death. Prophets die, kings die, billionaires die. We all die sometime. In Canada, a plane crashes, a train crashes. My record is very clear. I have no conflict with the people. I didn’t confiscate anybody’s land. I didn’t force any marriages, the daughter and the sister of someone. So that’s why I’m not worried too much about my security. Plus, I have good security here, especially from the Canadians. They are very kind to me and are taking good care of me.

Q: What’s day-to-day life like for you? Do you have time to relax?

A: I’m here in the governor’s compound. It’s a very antique building, a beautiful place. It’s a huge house. I have friends coming here at night. In fact, they just left. We have dinner here together sometimes. We have some Kandahari food. We have a good time here.

Q: What’s a good Kandahari dish?

A: Now is the wintertime. The tradition from long ago, when the meat market was not good in winter, was to dry meat. Remove all the bones, and put a lot of salt on, and put it in the open air. It’s called landi.

Q: You’re fond of it?

A: Very much, very much. Actually, when I came I asked a friend and he dried me one lamb.

Q: You and your wife have raised three daughters in Canada. How are they doing?

A: My older daughter, she graduated from the University of British Columbia; she’s a resident doctor in UBC Hospital in gynecology. My second daughter finished UBCin commerce and is now at Windsor University, second-year law school. My third daughter graduated from UBC in commerce and works in Vancouver for a transportation company. I’m very proud. Everybody tells me, “You made a good pension plan.”

Q: Other than your wife and daughters, do you miss anything else?

A: Of course. Some friends I have there, I wish they were here. The nice fresh air there, the mountains, Spanish Beach. There’s a lot to miss in Vancouver.

Q: What’s your opinion of the Canadian government’s plan to withdraw all of Canada’s troops from Afghanistan in 2011, especially now that U.S. President Barack Obama is pushing for all NATO countries to step up their commitments to Afghanistan, as he pours in more U.S. forces?

A: Kandaharis and the Afghan government in general are very impressed with the Canadians’ work. I travelled to three or four districts, and sat together with the shuras, the district councils, and people were so impressed, very happy with the Canadians. The problem is that in Canada, the Canadians do not learn much of the development work. They mainly see all the injuries, all the death, all the explosions. I wish the media could be encouraged to show some of the development work. That would help to convince Canadians, and I’m sure Canadians would ask for the Canadian troops to stay.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say to Canadians from your new position as governor?

A: I’m sure there are very smart people, very young Canadians, who would love to help Afghanistan, and would love to see your troops successful here in Afghanistan. My request would be to support us by sending some volunteers to teach some English language at [Kandahar] University.

Q: How long do you plan to serve as governor?

A: Depends. I will see what I can do. If I am successful, I will stay for some time to bring everything on the right track. If not, I will go back home.