I advised the government in November that I wanted to visit Afghanistan once the House rose for Christmas. My several earlier trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in particular my strong support for a continuing Canadian role in building governance capacity in Afghanistan post 2011 prompted my interest in returning to Kabul to see how Canada’s training mission was getting on.
The response from the government was to say that I could join an existing planned trip to Kabul over Christmas, provided I paid my own way to Kuwait City. This I arranged to do, taking the long trip from Washington DC to Kuwait on a single long flight on December 22. Just before leaving I was advised that the Governor General would be leading the delegation, and met up with him, as well as Defence Minister Peter McKay and Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk on the early morning of the 24th. His Excellency had been at the state funeral for Vaclav Havel in Prague, and warmly greeted us all as we boarded an air force transport plane on its regular run to Kabul at 4 a.m. on Christmas Eve.
With the time change we arrived in Kabul around mid-day, and began right away on a visit to Camp Phoenix, where Canadian troops are involved in providing training and support to the Afghan army and police. The Governor General went on to separate meetings with Afghan officials, including President Karzai, but joined us for all the meetings with Canadians on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The young men and women we met were in good spirits, despite being away from families and friends for Christmas. Two young talents, Amanda Rheaume, and Paul Myregaur, did a lot to cheer us all up, with Amanda playing the guitar and harmonica and Paul taking us down a comic road that I don’t think would be entirely suitable for a family blog, but struck a deep chord and many belly laughs from the women and men in uniform, and indeed all of us. They performed for four separate groups over two days, and took a keen interest in all the briefings and discussions. On Christmas Day the Governor General led us in putting on Christmas hats and singing “We Wish you a Merry Christmas”.
The temperature dropped well below zero as we hit five p.m each night, bonfires were lit, and it was fun to meet young officers who had been in a class I taught in the late 1990’s, as well as some I had met before on earlier trips. Some of these troops are on their fifth and sixth missions in Afghanistan. There was a good humoured combination of pride and irreverence in what everyone was doing.
Canada is no longer in combat, and no longer in Kandahar. There are no embedded reporters in Kabul, and the journalistic interest in the current mission is almost zero. But to create a sustainable capacity in Afghanistan for its own security is a deeply important job. It is not a job that lends itself to artificial timelines or deadlines, and in many respects should have been much more of a focus for a much longer time. It does not create as much drama as “fighting bad guys”, but it is just as important.
On Christmas Eve we joined a reception at the Canadian Embassy (in whose secure compound we were all staying), and that gave me a chance to meet Canadians involved in working in different fields: an Afghan Canadian doctor developing cardiac care at Kabul’s largest hospital, a young woman working in advancing human rights at the UN, an OPP officer engaged in helping to train the Afghan police, as well as embassy staff working at many different levels. It is impossible not to be impressed by the professionalism and dedication of everyone one meets – no one under-estimates the challenges, but the spirit is upbeat and thoughtful.
Afghan’s civil war has lasted over thirty years, and has left it dismally poor and physically devastated. The enemy now is as much corruption and bad governance as it is violent extremism. We learned at a briefing on Christmas morning that the Surgeon General of the country was hoarding drugs and selling them, instead of ensuring their proper distribution. Other examples abounded on where things had simply gone off the rails.
There is a temptation in all this to simply want to pull up stakes. Certainly the rumblings from the U.S. and other NATO allies speak to a sea change from a few short months ago. President Karzai’s corrupt election, a sense that some of what we are trying to do “is like pushing string”, all point to a potential rush to the exit door.
The most famous Taliban expression is “you have the watches, we have the time”. Of course it’s frustrating, and expensive, to do what we do, but in the circumstances we should be more interested in an “end state” than an “end game”.
The world has come to learn that there are no unimportant countries, and that it’s the “hopeless cases” in terms of governance and corruption that can create the haunts where extremism festers. This is the risk in simply abandoning Afghanistan.
NATO will be meeting in summit in Chicago later this spring. “Victory” will not come quickly in this part of the world. Our decision to leave a combat role was the right one. The mentoring and training we do after 2014 will rightly take a different form. But the point is we need to stay engaged, and so do our allies, and the Afghans need to understand that the partnerships we have been building are not here today and gone tomorrow.
Nothing would give the extremists in this part of the world, including Pakistan, more encouragement than to know that NATO has lost heart and lost interest.
Having found the right approach – training, education, literacy for more effective governance – we should not abandon it now. Canadians can take great pride in the professionalism of the soldiers and civilians who are working together to provide support and training to the Afghan military and police forces who will simply have to take more responsibility for providing security for the people of the country. We are a place whose constitution speaks of “peace, order, and good government”. Well worth thinking about as a watchword for what we have to do abroad as well as at home.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.