With Canada renewing its commitment to the Afghan mission at the NATO summit in Lisbon last week, a simple yet important question comes to mind: Have we as Canadians been honest about our intentions?
This was also the question in the back of my mind last month as I attended the fifth NATO-Afghan student forum in Istanbul. The NATO-sponsored forum brought together young Afghans and representatives from NATO-member countries, including regional participants from Central Asia and Pakistan, to Kadir Has University for a week-long discussion on the results and limitations of the Afghan mission.
As a Canadian, it was fascinating to hear the opinions of young Afghans since their voice is rarely ever present in our media's coverage. They are the ones who will ultimately deal with the outcomes of the mission, and it's for their sake that we need to take a hard look at our commitment and be honest about its long-term effects.
Coming from Afghans, critiques about NATO's mission resonate differently as many of them have spent most of their lives dealing directly with the consequences of war.
"Why," asked Nasria Pashtun of NATO's regional information officer, "is NATO even in Afghanistan?"
The answer provided was simple: NATO members are there to contain terrorism and build a stable country. But questions about our motivation are legitimate for two significant reasons. First, the international community did abandon Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion ended, creating a power vacuum that allowed the Taliban to change the once vibrant and modernizing country into an extremist's wasteland. Second, public opinion in NATO-member countries is overwhelmingly against further engagement and no one can expect democratic governments to counter their public's opinion in perpetuity.
With troop withdrawal deadlines, increasing talk of Taliban reconciliation and a perceived sense among many that Afghanistan isn't as important in the war on terror as it was once thought to be, it's no wonder that Afghans look upon the world's commitment to them with a great deal of skepticism.
For Canadians, there is so much about the mission that makes us uncomfortable: our alleged complicity in torture, civilian casualties, troop deaths, cost overruns and endemic corruption that likely has a portion of our tax dollars indirectly funding a resurgent Taliban.
Success, however defined, is no longer certain and Canadians recognize this. According to an Ipsos Reid poll conducted in August, four out of five Canadians want to end the mission in 2011.
But do we care? Undoubtedly we do. Despite the firmness of our government's commitment to end the combat mission next year, it has recently stated that our presence will continue in the form of a civilian-based development mission with a continued role for our military in training Afghan forces.
Canadians, after all, are a benevolent people. In terms of official development assistance, in absolute numbers, Canada ranks tenth in the world, committing over $4-billion of our tax dollars to better the lives of those in developing countries, with a large portion of this going directly to Afghanistan. We like to think of ourselves as a multicultural, outward-looking society that remains, despite all the negative stories, sentimentally engaged with the plight of Afghans and especially Afghan women.
The problem is, when speaking to young Afghans about how much we care, it all seems to ring rather hollow. There's been no clarity on what, if anything, our concern will amount to. While we delight in debating the merits of our engagement, Afghans look uneasily upon the next few years, expecting to go the road alone.
Several Afghan delegates told me that they believe the international community will eventually forget about them and that the Taliban will likely regain significant control once we leave. In the suspended reality of Istanbul, it was sobering to think of my new Afghan friends returning to this bleak uncertainty.
Nevertheless, I remain heartened by the likes of Haseebullah Agahzad, currently studying in Kabul, who describes Afghans as eternal optimists in the face of any obstacle. In a country with a population of 30 million, about the same as Canada, Afghanistan has fewer than 35,000 university students, enough to populate one of our major universities. Haseeb and the other Afghans at the forum were exemplars of survival, perseverance and intelligence and it behooves us to listen to what they have to say.
While it's difficult to generalize about the opinions of all the Afghans at the forum, consensus emerged around their inherent trust of Turkey's intervention, especially in the realm of education, the democratic model that India provides and the centrality of Pakistan in influencing Afghanistan's future. Lasting peace will rely on regional stakeholders whose interest in Afghanistan runs deeper than ours.
When asked about their life's ambition, several Afghan delegates told me of their desire to commit their lives to building a stable and modern future for their communities. Canadians need to partake in some honest self-reflection and decide whether our engagement in Afghanistan is facilitating the success of these future leaders.
Honesty and frankness emerged as the prevailing theme at this year's forum. If Canada is the type of leader it sometimes fancies itself to be, we might want to encourage this kind of honesty as the international community seeks to achieve by 2014 what it hasn't been able to in the last decade. After so many years of war, we owe that to ourselves and we owe that to Afghans.
Aneel Brar is a development researcher who has worked in India and West Africa. He recently graduated with a master's degree in political science from McGill University and is currently based in Ottawa.
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