Last Thursday, UBC international relations graduate and Canada’s most recent ambassador to Afghanistan, Arif Z. Lalani, spoke at the Choi building, giving a candid account of Canada’s overseas mission in Afghanistan.
With the Liberals and Conservatives both supporting an extension of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan to 2011, the occupation of Afghanistan will not be a divisive issue during this federal election. Despite that, it was a point of contention for many in the audience for Lalani’s speech.
Lalani, who was ambassador to the war-torn country from April 2007 to August 2008, argued that Canada had voluntarily chosen the violent region of Khandhar in Afghanistan to administer and defend.
During a question and answer period after his formal address, many students argued that America had bullied Canada into Afghanistan’s Khandhar region. While he admitted that he was not at the highest level of government during the selection process—on September 11, 2001 he was working at the Canadian Washington, DC embassy—he sought to underline his belief that Canadian involvement is voluntary. Lalani asserted that the Paul Martin government chose to station troops in Khandhar because past international work led them to conclude that was where they would have the strongest impact.
To develop Afghanistan, Lalani said Canada would have to reverse the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam, which would mean a heavy emphasis on the advancement of women. He noted that “education is a priority and a success story” in the country, with over six million Afghan children in school today, of which a third are females. And while quotas are to thank for it, there are more females in Afghanistan’s parliament than in Canada’s, or in America’s Congress.
Benjamin Perrin, an assistant professor of law at UBC who attended Lalani’s speech, said “The Ambassador’s first-hand account was a frank report on Canada’s most significant overseas mission since the Korean conflict. As is often the case, the reality on the ground is very different from what we hear in the media.
“It is encouraging to see that progress is being made alongside a new generation of Afghans….Just a few years ago, this was a country where the Taliban were stoning women to death in soccer stadiums and prohibiting girls from going to school,” Perrin said.
Lalani said that while Afghanistan has seen progress, much is lacking. The international community was “successful in building institutions of security” (e.g. parliament), yet the personal security of individuals is lacking, as schools and dams are consistently under attack—not to mention Canadians. Lalani further cautioned that of all the countries he has worked in, “Afghanistan was the least developed,” and that what Afghanistan needed initially and still needs today is largely “construction, not reconstruction.” He expressed frustration with Canadians who belittle, for example, the construction of a bridge or gravel road, arguing that such “construction is real progress.”
While the construction of a gravel road is progress, being realistic is necessary, and Canada’s 2011 goal for Afghanistan is rooted, according to Lalani, in reality. He outlined a six-priority plan to allow Afghans alone to run the country by 2011. Of the six priorities “the police file is the one where [Afghans] need success” as this will allow for the second most important priority: political reconciliation that “needs to be Afghan-led.” He stated that “working on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border security situation is a crucial issue.”
By holding Khandhar, Afghanistan’s “toughest” real estate, Mr. Lalani believes that Canada will be influenced by Afghanistan. Lalani said that Canada continues to learn that leadership not only has a monetary cost, but a social one as well.
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