Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The federal government should recognize the Taliban as the new government in Afghanistan while making safe passage out for those we left behind a part of the deal.
Shunning the Taliban as retribution for the West’s defeat would be a mistake. That the Taliban include drug-dealing, misogynist killers as members is beside the point. Diplomatic recognition should not be considered a seal of approval, but rather as the means by which a given country represents and advances the interests of its citizens.
That’s why, despite the blood of millions on Mao Zedong’s hands, we recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1970; Pierre Trudeau recognized that we could not be a responsible player in global affairs if we ignored one-quarter of the global community.
That’s why a group that was once deemed a terrorist organization – Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress – became the government in South Africa. The steadfast support from the governments of Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien is still remembered, although these days, we don’t pay enough attention to the continent.
That’s why Canada keeps an embassy in Havana, which has helped our relations with Washington, as they rely on our reports.
While Canada’s evacuation from Kabul airport has officially ended, we still have both history and vital interests in Afghanistan. More than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan, with 158 killed between 2001 and 2014. Since 2001, Canada has provided more than $3.6-billion in international assistance for security, education, health and the rights of women and girls. Even if half of Canadians think we’ve done enough, we need to look after the Canadians left behind, the Afghans who helped us when we were there, those with family ties to Canada, and those with a well-founded fear of persecution from the Taliban.
International support, mostly from the West, sustained Afghanistan for the last 20 years, and while Russia or China will want to fill this void, it comes with a price (as Russia will well remember). Humanitarian assistance – Canada pledged $50-million through the United Nations and Red Cross last week – gives us leverage that Western governments should apply collectively to ensure the Taliban follow through on “assurances” that those who want out will “be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner.” In mid-August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to resettle 20,000 Afghans in addition to the government’s prior commitment to those who helped Canada. Those numbers will likely increase, as we saw when Ottawa made a similar promise to Syrians; whichever party forms the next government should also encourage private sponsorships.
That’s a start, but defending democracy is going to require once-complacent U.S. allies to step up and share the burden in terms of defence and security, diplomacy and development. China may be pressing its alternative to our liberal rules-based system, but the West’s real challenge is less about constraining China than preventing the U.S. from slipping further into isolationism. As we learned during the Trump administration, the system of liberal democracy withers without U.S. leadership and participation.
Middle powers such as Canada must step into the breach, starting with the reform of our creaky multilateral institutions. Our allies, including Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany, have produced thoughtful research on how to achieve it, and Canada’s next government should do the same. Canadians pride ourselves on being helpful fixers, but in reality we fall short in our capacity to even punch our weight; as scholar Adam Chapnick writes, the catchphrase “Canada is back” is humbug.
A global Canada is more than a choice: It’s a necessity. Trade generates more than 60 per cent of our GDP. One in five Canadians was born abroad. Immigration accounts for about two-thirds of Canada’s population growth. In an election campaign called on the day that Kabul fell to the Taliban, our party leaders should be debating how they will reinvest in our diplomatic service, our armed forces and development, and recommit to the understanding that doing diplomacy means “being there,” no matter how unpleasant.
If we are to bring a Canadian perspective to the world stage, we need a presence on the ground to appreciate histories, geographies and cultures, and to gain insights into other governments. Indeed, recognizing the Taliban in Afghanistan should be followed by reopening our embassy in Iran and re-establishing a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang.
The world is a messy place, and it’s only getting messier. To help fix it, we need to be actively engaged with our allies – and, yes, with those we don’t like or trust. After all, that’s what diplomacy is all about: We practise it not just for the collective good, but because it is how we advance Canadian interests.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.