Chris Alexander made a name for himself as Canada’s idealistic first ambassador to Afghanistan and as a UN representative there. Now a Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Ajax-Pickering, he spent six years on the diplomatic front lines, as troops from Canada and dozens of other countries struggled to control a growing Taliban insurgency.
In The Long Way Back, his new book about the conflict, Mr. Alexander says the stabilization effort has been far more effective than most observers realize. But he also argues the conflict cannot be resolved without a radical shift in Pakistani policy toward Afghanistan. The Globe spoke with Mr. Alexander on Friday.
Do you still think it was wise to go into Afghanistan after 9/11?
I think it would have been better to pay more attention to Afghanistan starting in the 1990s, after the Soviet withdrawal. Afghanistan wanted support from the international community but the world was focused on other things and instead Afghanistan had the civil war and then the rise of the Taliban. But given that we didn’t, 9/11 was a huge wakeup call to what was happening in Afghanistan and the region. And I don’t think we had any choice but to pay attention and to get involved.
Should we also have taken a more aggressive stand with Pakistan right after 9/11?
We should have paid more attention back in the fall of 2001, after this really rapid campaign to bring down the Taliban. They didn’t just disappear. They took a lot casualties but their leadership withdrew into Pakistan where they very quickly became a regime in exile and that put everything at risk. I think if we’d confronted those issues earlier, we would have saved ourselves a lot of time and reduced the cost for everyone.
Despite the progress you write about, you also acknowledge that Afghanistan is still under a very serious threat. Where has the effort to stabilize the country faltered?
For most of the past decade some in Pakistan, particularly in Pakistan’s army, simply denied that the Taliban were there or that Osama bin Laden was in their country. Too many of us that were engaged in this project took those claims at face value. It simply wasn’t true. On May 1 when Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan, I think the last skeptics came to their senses and we’ve all now started to see the cross-border nature of this conflict in all its dimensions.
So you lay most of the blame on Pakistan?
I do think the insurgency would not have been nearly as virulent or have lasted as long if the Taliban had not found very sophisticated forms of support in Pakistan. So yes, that is to my mind the main factor contributing to continued conflict in Afghanistan.
Why didn’t that message get through earlier? Was the West too eager to placate Pakistan?
Pakistan did arrest in those early years some high-profile members of al-Qaeda and we mistook those actions for a change in fundamental policy of Pakistan’s army, of support for the Taliban. But there’s also a lack of hard evidence. None of the traditional tools of fact checking was available in places where we now know the Taliban have been flourishing. It’s difficult to prove the Taliban are in Quetta when we have no objective means of proving they are. We spoke up and we wrote about it and we started to speak publicly about it, but the best way to describe the attitude of some Pakistanis was one of deception.
That must have been frustrating.
It was and the book is partly born of that frustration. If we had had a clear understanding among allies that this was happening we might be in a different position today.
You argue the key to achieving peace is to negotiate a settlement between Pakistan and Afghanistan. How do you overcome the decades and sometimes centuries of animosity?
The key is to start talking about the real issues more openly and more clearly. One thing that encourages me is that some very influential voices in Pakistan are now saying: ‘Our policy over the past decade was wrong, we have suffered for it, we have made the Afghans suffer for it and we can change it.’
When do you think such a settlement could be achieved?
[Laughs.]I’m the guy writing the book and sitting in the Parliament of Canada. It’s really up to politicians in Kabul and Islamabad to set the pace for these things and we know how complicated their lives are. The only thing I can say is the sooner the better.
This interview has been condensed and edited.