By George Brown
“It all comes down to people,” Edmonton Centre MP Laurie Hawn told a crowd of about 150 Nov. 7 at Ponoka’s eighth annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.
Since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001, Canada has steadily increased its military involvement in Afghanistan.
“We were requested to go there by the government of Afghanistan. We were requested to go there by the United Nations,” Hawn explained. “We’re part of a NATA-led mission with 40 allies.
Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan began soon after the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. A naval task force was deployed to the Persian Gulf in October and that invasion toppled the repressive and unpopular Taliban regime that had given sanctuary to al-Qaeda.
“We can’t let that happen again,” Hawn said. “It’s in our national interest to see Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for terrorism again.”
He said there is more to Canada’s commitment in southeastern Afghanistan, what Foreign Affairs calls a “whole of government” approach. While the mission is largely military, the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) also has personnel from Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency and the RCMP. The mandate of the PRT is twofold: providing military security while at the same time working with local leaders on reconstruction efforts. In 2007/08 Canada spent $280 million on security and development projects.
“It’s about values,” Hawn said. “It’s about the kind of values we take for granted in Canada; freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, the rights of women and children.
“We take that for granted here.”
“It’s a matter of trust. The Afghan people have trusted us to be there to help them until they can help themselves.”
Hawn, a former air force pilot, has made four trips to Afghanistan — three to spend Christmas with the troops. “Afghanistan really is a beautiful country,” he said, with features that remind him of Alberta and Canada. “It’s a country and a people worth saving.”
There are 34 provinces in Afghanistan, a nation about the size of Alberta, with a population of 27 million. Life is normal in 28 of the provinces, Hawn said, with most of the danger centred in Kandahar province. Afghanistan is landlocked, bordered by Pakistan, Iran, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
In the more than seven years since Canadian soldiers have been assigned to Afghanistan life is slowly improving
According to the United Nations, Afghanistan ranks 174th out of 178 countries on the Human Development Index, a ranking that mixes per capita income with public health statistics, crime rates and other indicators.
Out of every 1,000 babies born in Afghanistan, 142 die before reaching their first birthday. A woman dies in pregnancy every 30 minutes. Overall life expectancy is estimated at 43 years.
Nearly seven million people don’t have enough food to meet minimum daily needs. That’s about a quarter of the population.
The literacy rate among males is 32 per cent; among women, 13 per cent. There are now seven million Afghan children in school.
More than 80 per cent of Afghans have access to basic health care; five years ago it was only 10 per cent.
One telling improvement is that farmers are now growing more wheat than poppies, used to make opium. “If that’s not a sign of progress, I don’t know what is,” Hawn said.
Most of those statistics are an improvement from 2002, he said but it’s just the beginning. Reconstruction isn’t made any easier by the persistence of violence and insecurity.
Corruption and democracy
Afghan opposition politician Abdullah Abdullah’s withdrew his candidacy for the presidency before the planned runoff election. Incumbent Hamid Karzai won a new term by default, with the United Nations canceling the runoff it had ordered after finding a million fraudulent votes.
The corruption underlying the re-election process underscores the challenges facing Canadian and NATO forces, Hawn said. It’s been difficult to establish a legitimate, democratic government in Afghanistan but at least citizens now have the right to form their own government. More than 10 million Afghans registered to vote in the national election.
“There’s election fraud in Canada in every election. There’s election fraud all around the world in every election,” Hawn said. “It’s a matter of degrees. The fact is they had an election.”
Municipal elections in Canada typically have lower than the 38 per cent turnout the Afghan election realized. “And we’re not voting under the threat of death.”
Many of the leading politicians are former warlords and “rough around the edges” but it’s the best they’ve got to work with, Hawn said. “We’re building a country from scratch.”
Hawn identified Gov. Tooryalai Wesa as a proud Afghan who is committed to building a free nation. For 13 years he lived in Vancouver, B.C. and was a tenured professor in the faculty of agriculture at the University of British Columbia. “Life was a little more comfortable on the campus in Vancouver than it is in Kandahar City.
“They’re just people trying to do what’s right for their folks.”
To help understand each other’s role in the redevelopment and protection of Afghanistan, military personnel and municipal leaders regularly meet in a shura or town hall meeting. Canadians soldiers and civilians are helping to train the Afghan national Army and the national police force.
Hawn said it is difficult for soldiers to determine who is a friend or foe by dress or actions at a roadblock. They’re facing life and death decisions every day and no matter what they do, they’ll be criticized for their actions.
“My personal view, as painful as it is, we simply can’t stop doing the right thing.
“We are there doing the right thing. It is a very, very tough mission,” Hawn said. “We’ve got some of the most dedicated people in the world, many of whom have gone back time after time and continue to do the right thing.
“Why have 133 Canadians come home under the flag? Because it’s the right thing to do.”