The Interview: Chris Alexander

Diplomat Chris Alexander on fraud and political game-playing in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s army, and his race to be a Tory MP

Chris AlexanderQ:Why, after six years in Afghanistan, did you leave in May?

A: My wife and I left because we had a child and the children of UN employees in Afghanistan have to live elsewhere. Had that rule not existed, we might have stayed, because we felt it was a very welcoming environment for babies. In Kabul, life for families is relatively safe.

Q: Just after we went to press, six U.N. staff were killed in Kabul. Do you still think it’s a relatively safe place for young families?

A: Of course Kabul is far from entirely safe from terrorist attack, even though millions of people do live there with their young families. This attack was a cold-blooded attempt to prevent the UN from doing its job: supporting a fair and legitimate outcome from the second round of voting. It is sickening to think some in the Taliban leadership believe this sort of attack–the murder of innocent Afghan and international civilians–will help their cause. Its shows how radical and extreme they have become–and how dangerous. Until the sanctuaries housing the groups that train for and stage such attacks, especially North Waziristan, become subject to effective and sustained military operations, these dreadful incidents involving suicide attackers will continue. Everyone in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a potential target. My heart goes out to the UN family in Afghanistan: in spite of everything, they are showing fortitude. But they will need the support of the whole world at this difficult time.

Q: What do you miss about Afghanistan?

A: The electric atmosphere, particularly in Kabul. It’s very vivid, it’s something about the quality of the light but also the intensity of the community. People come together and work very productively, partly because this is a historic opportunity to break with the past of conflict, and because the direction of the future is very much in play. I miss that, and also the sounds and smells of the place.

Q: Were you a celebrity there?

A: That culture hasn’t really come to Afghanistan. Fortunately! But I was there for a long time, relatively speaking, and I think Afghans find that reassuring, to have stability. Perhaps it makes you a little more effective. Everyone at every level of Afghan society has the potential to play the game, to try to manipulate events by manoeuvring behind the scenes, and one of our main tasks was to avoid that. After six years, you make fewer mistakes.

Q: What do you mean, “play the game?”

A: For instance, look at the recent election scandal. Dr. Abdullah had been engaging in fraud as well, just not on as large a scale. But he tried to tell the story in his own way, and succeeded to a large degree, in that the international media focused primarily on President Karzai. When we allow ourselves to be drawn into these games, we fail.

Q: Two years ago you called Karzai “a visionary.” Is it how you’d describe him today?

A: He’s the country’s first democratically elected president. He brought the international community into partnership on an unprecedented level, and he championed a new constitution that is liberal, democratic and still very Afghan. All of that does reflect a vision. But he’s presided over a country that is still in conflict, and he hasn’t taken some of the difficult decisions his own government wanted him to take. On corruption, he hasn’t been as decisive as he should’ve been. There are legitimate questions about him.

Q: What kind of a leader is Abdullah?

A: He is very charismatic, and well-spoken in both languages. He’s respected by Afghans for being able to articulate what the challenges are, and for having remained in the country in its darkest hour to play an important political role, as de facto foreign minister during the resistance to the Taliban.

Q: Did you play any role in the August elections?

A: One of my responsibilities [as United Nations representative] was organizing these elections. We devoted a great deal of time to creating safeguards, such as the Electoral Complaints Commission, to protect the process. We made an effort to exclude from the ballot all candidates with proven links to militias, and literally scores of people were excluded. There were thousands of observers, so the upside was that we detected fraud much earlier and more comprehensively than in ’04. We don’t even know the scale of fraud in that election, because there weren’t the same safeguards, and there was no ECC then to investigate. But look, 5.6 million Afghans voted in August. Even if you subtract the fraudulent ballots, that’s a remarkable figure.

Q: Why, if Afghans don’t support the Taliban, has the Taliban come roaring back?

A: Because they have been funded, organized and supported, outside the borders of Afghanistan, to mount this insurgency. The story of Taliban recovery and resurgence begins in the places where they took refuge after 2001. And as long as those leadership structures and training structures operate outside of Afghanistan with relative impunity, the conflict will continue. But in 2007 and 2008, it was impossible to get American and British policy makers, or Pakistani politicians, to acknowledge that the Taliban leadership was in Pakistan. This is the great virtue of the early statements of the Obama administration, when Obama himself, Richard Holbrooke and others, said that the threat to both countries comes principally from western Pakistan, in Balujistan and Waziristan. So there has been some progress, but probably the hardest part is yet to come.

Q: Has Pakistan deployed troops too late?

A: It’s never too late to try to end a conflict. But there still isn’t a Pakistan army operation in places that, to my understanding, provide the Taliban the most support for their campaign inside Afghanistan. North Waziristan, for instance, which is where [New York Times reporter] David Rohde was held hostage for seven months. Read his accounts. He’s sitting in the back of a car with a blanket over his head and the brother of one of the most wanted architects of suicide bombing in both Pakistan and Afghanistan is standing by the side of the road, waving to the Pakistan army as they roll by. Pakistan has serious internal economic challenges, and the government is facing its own insurgency in some areas.

Q: Sixty per cent of Canadians oppose the war in Afghanistan. Is there something Canadians are missing, some compelling reason for combat troops to stay?

A: I assume 100 per cent of Canadians are opposed to war. We all want peace. And the question to be asked is: are we in prospect of achieving peace in Afghanistan? I think we are closer now than eight years ago, and even three years ago. The one point that can never be brought home enough is that the consequences of failure would be incalculable. If the Taliban comes back to power, the impact would be devastating. A country that has made great strides, in terms of development indicators, would take a huge step backwards. Afghanistan’s national economy would be devastated. Beyond that, the Taliban have demonstrated their enthusiasm for the international terrorist agenda of al-Qaeda. Also, institutions that have backed the mission in Afghanistan—the UN, NATO—would take a serious hit. Their credibility would be diminished. My conviction is that this is one of the great tests of our time.

Q: Why would we pull our combat troops?

A: The position of the government of Canada is that the combat mission in Kandahar will end in 2011. It’s a parliamentary resolution passed by a government and an opposition, but I know there will be debate in this country about what to do after 2011, and that debate will be informed by the result of the second round of elections, how credible the result is, which will in turn influence Obama’s position [on whether to deploy more troops]. We’re right to reserve judgment until we have that information.

Q: The judgment has already been made: our troops are out of there in 2011.

A: Last time I checked, that’s two years away. We have yet to debate the shape of engagement. What I believe, after speaking with Canadians, is that they’re very interested in further analysis. Why haven’t we succeeded yet? What is the relationship between what’s happening in Pakistan and the success of the mission in Afghanistan? What is the Obama administration going to do? There is a great appetite for more information and for completing what we set out to do, to protect the achievements that have been made up to now and support Afghanistan on the shortest and least painful path to peace and stability. But what finishing the job might entail—that debate still has to happen.

Q: It’s been reported that you decided not to run as a Liberal because you disagree with the party’s stance on Afghanistan. What specifically do you disagree with?

A: The Liberal party has not laid out its policy particularly clearly. Ignatieff says different things, Bob Rae says various things. Many in the party think our military should only be used for peacekeeping, not combat. But the reality of Canadian history is that we’ve been willing to do the important things the world demanded of us: fighting in World War II, in Korea, in the Balkans, where we were involved in offensive military operations, and in Afghanistan, where we have made disproportionate contributions.

Q: But both parties have agreed that our military engagement in Afghanistan ends in July 2011. So what’s the difference between their policies?

A: I think it’s the difference between having a clear policy of engagement, and having a lot of uncertainty about and unwillingness to make any military commitment at all on the Liberal side.

Q: Why are you a Conservative?

A: Despite 18 years as a non-partisan public servant, my deeper “tribal” affinity has always been Tory. The Afghanistan file has given me an additional reason to cleave to that side of the spectrum. Canadian Conservatives have generally been more comfortable and confident with hard security issues. Frankly, that is what is needed again now, as Obama is showing by outdoing U.S. conservatives at their own game on Af-Pak.

Q: Aren’t you playing the biggest game of all, running for Parliament?

A: You could call it that, but politics is also a profession, and a form of service, and it should draw people who are passionate and have deep experience of the complex, changing nature of the world. I agree with Mark Carney that we are involved in a historic restructuring of the world economy. Virtually every country that matters has been striving to pursue the same economic model, and has bought into a set of market-based principles that has brought new players on the stage and new markets. We have to take full advantage. It will not be good enough simply to depend on one or two markets, we will need to embrace innovation, decide what we do well, and target those sectors in which, with investment and planning, we could make the whole world our client for keeps. My own experience in Russia [where he served at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow] and Afghanistan is in precisely this sort of social change: how to transition from one model—in their cases, a planned economy and a protracted conflict—to new competitive forms of economic growth.

Q: But those are all big ideas. The reality of running for office is that you’re kissing babies and attending endless community events.

A: Yes, there’s a retail side to politics. But the reality we face in the world isn’t abstract in a place like Ajax-Pickering. There are many new Canadians in this riding, and they’re keyed in to the challenges, the opportunities in the world. My challenge is to become the candidate who can represent people of this riding across the board. It excites me as much to talk to them about the position of the GO station, which is rather inconveniently located, as Afghanistan. Honestly, it does! All politics are local, whether in Kabul or here.