Afghanistan- Failed State or Struggling Democracy


28 October 2008

It is very hard to live up to an introduction like that. Thank you. Thank you very much indeed Lowell. Wow.

I may say it is just great to be here with you. And here, especially, for the Allan J. MacEachen Lecture. Among other things, it has been wonderful to get back to this part of the country. I do not know what it is about Maritimers and Nova Scotians, and if I may say, particularly Cape Bretoners, but we never seem to lose contact with our roots, and we want to revisit them whenever we can.

And so tonight, I want to say what a great time I have had these last few days. I flew down from Ottawa and Lowell met me at the Halifax airport and we drove here and stopped off briefly at St. F. X. and then went on to Cape Breton to where Lowell now resides, and spent the next few days driving up the back roads and the back lanes of many a place in Cape Breton. It was simply wonderful. It makes you realize what a rich part of the country we come from. So, I am delighted to be here and, as I say for a Maritimer, it is always great to be able to get back to what we naturally call home, particularly as I say, if you come from Nova Scotia and as I do from Cape Breton. Tonight I am particularly pleased to be with you to salute and honour another Cape Bretoner, a longtime friend and sometimes foe, the Honourable Allan J. MacEachen. I may say at the outset, and I hope Allan pays special attention to this, that the MacEachen's are a sub-clan of the greatest clan in Scottish history, the MacDonald's.

Two brief anecdotes about Allan MacEachen. I was first elected to the House of Commons in September of 1972. The new House convened in January of 1973, and I made my maiden speech on January 11, the birthday of the legendary Sir John A. Macdonald. Now a few days later, Allan MacEachen spoke and during his speech he added these comments. He said, and I am quoting from Hanserd, he said, "may I refer in particular to the maiden speech of the Honourable Member for Kingston and the Islands. She bears the name of a great Scottish heroine." And, he went on to recite the epitaph that is engraved on her tombstone on the Isle of Skye, and it reads: "Flora MacDonald. Preserver of the life of Charles Edward Stuart. Her name will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour." And then Mr. MacEachen added, "may I make a prediction Mr. Speaker, the Honourable Member for Kingston and the Islands, the modern perceptive Flora MacDonald, will bring in our day added luster to the old name and the old clan and will deserve a secure place in our political history." I was overwhelmed. Here I was, a rookie member of the House, trying to learn the protocol of the chamber, and I was being heralded by an individual who was the President of the Privy Council and without a doubt, the Dean of the House of Commons. Some welcome, some tribute.

Over the years that followed however, it wasn't always so. In 1979, as Lowell mentioned, there was a political upset. Not quite an earthquake but at least a tremor. A Conservative minority government, led by the Honourable Joe Clark, was elected. And I was appointed Secretary of State for External Affairs, now known as Foreign Minister. The person sitting across the aisle from me, my opposition critic, was none other than the Honourable Allan J. MacEachen. During those brief months - and I remember how brief they were - of a PC government, the most memorable incident to occur, as Lowell has already mentioned, was the effort, a successful one I may say, to rescue 6 Americans, who had evaded the takeover of the American compound in Tehran by the Iranians. For something like 8 weeks, our rescue work had to be done very, very secretly. And not a word of it could be breathed to anyone as the rescue plans, the escape plans, developed. But for weeks, Mr. MacEachen pummeled me remorselessly on the floor for not doing enough to provide aid and succor to the imprisoned American hostages. I did my best to continue the subterfuge but I was often hard put to outmaneuver Allan J.'s very skillful questioning. But those days have long since passed. And, like good Nova Scotians, we would often gather for a gathering at the Ottawa Valley home of Senator Lowell Murray and Colleen MacDonald. Along with such notables as Allan J. himself, the Honourable Bob Stanfield, Senator Al Graham, Bill MacEachern, and sundry others. Now that Lowell and Colleen have moved their residence to Margaree Forks, I have to make a much longer journey to recreate that special kind of gathering we so enjoyed in the Ottawa Valley.

In the many years since I left the political scene in Ottawa, I have indulged my yearning for travel and I can now claim to have visited and worked in 103 countries. One of those countries that I care most about is Afghanistan. And while I am speaking to you, they are going to be running slides of pictures that I and people who travelled with me from the CBC have taken. Now I will continue to speak but in case you really want to know something about Afghanistan, that is where you will see it.

On other occasions, I have spoken to groups like this one about Afghanistan and I would give my comments this title, 'Afghanistan, Failed State or Struggling Democracy,' when it was just emerging from the throes of a takeover by the Soviet Union. Afghanistan then succumbed to years of civil war and the imposition of Taliban rule, which became progressively more severely fundamentalist. Later, after 9-11 and the arrival of American and NATO troops, when things seemed to be improving in Afghanistan, I spoke about what I called another view of Afghanistan. That was a view that took one beyond the well-known centres of Kabul and Kandahar, to rural Afghanistan, where one could see a return to normal life. That is, if anything could be called normal in the third poorest country in the world. Nevertheless, some progress was being made. And the situation today, another wave of fighting by a resurgent Taliban has brought its forces to the very gates of the capital city Kabul. Speaking after the prison break - you remember that happened just recently - but speaking after the prison break in Kandahar, from which more than 90 prisoners escaped, Abdul Alee, who earlier had fought against the Taliban and has reported recently in the New York Times, he wrote, "We don't have a system here. The government does not have a solution. Without the presence of international forces in southern Afghanistan to help," he wrote, "I don't think the Afghan national army and police would dare come out of their bases." A rising chorus of complaints equally scathing about the failings of the government can be heard around the country. A western diplomat in Kabul recently made this statement: "the collapsing confidence in the government of President Hamid Karzai is so serious that if the Taliban had wanted to, they could have seized control of the city of Kandahar on the night of the great prison break." This is just one of a number of recent articles in the major media outlets around the world along these same lines, that is, raising the prospect once again of Afghanistan becoming a failed state.

First, let me mention that I have been going to Afghanistan regularly, since March of 2001, when the Taliban still formed the government and had control over most of the country. I had gone there on my own. And I would walk around Kabul by myself and one day, a couple of men, obviously with the Taliban, came up to me and said they wanted to speak to me. They were wearing great black turbans. One of the things that we were doing then - and 'we' was Care Canada - was to bring little girls to schools, what we called underground schools, where we would bring these youngsters to somebody's house and we would take one of the many unemployed women teachers, because women were not allowed to teach at that point. And we would have them come in quietly and they would teach these children, these little girls. And these two men came up to me and they said, "We know what you are doing but we won't say anything if you'll allow our daughters to go to school too." It gave me then an indication that the Taliban, like many other political movements, is not one cohesive construct. They have varieties in their makeup and so here I was learning about a quite different kind of Taliban than I had been thinking about up until then.

Only the northern alliance, at that time led by Ahmad Shah Massoud’s mujahedeen fighters, blocked the Taliban from a takeover of the entire country. Then on September 9th, 2001, Massoud was shot by two imposters posing a TV photographic journalists. It was the signal for other mujahedeen hiding in the U.S. to carry out the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers in New York.

In May of this year, I made my 10th trip to Afghanistan. When I make these trips, I venture out to the high central mountain provinces of Bamiyan, Parwan, Uruzgan and further south to the provinces of Ghazni and Paktya. In these areas, I travel with local people, sleep in their little mud brick huts, and eat their unvaried but healthy food. As a result of this long and intimate friendship with the people of Afghanistan, I would like to state certain assumptions gained from these experiences. And these are the things that I take away from my visits, my many visits to Afghanistan. And so I'm going to list a number of points.

1. Progress is being made in Afghanistan, although certainly not uniformly throughout the country.

2. A form of local governance is emerging, though not particularly the one dictated by western thinking.

3. Rebuilding Afghanistan is going to take a long time, militarily, to maintain the militant Taliban in their heartlands of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, Paktika and other provinces in the southeast and northeast. But as I've indicated, not all so called Taliban are militant. Among them are people who also desire peace and stability in their country. And many would willingly share these views with others.

4. Rebuilding Afghanistan, economically and socially, may take even longer than it will to do militarily. But Afghans themselves will be able to meet these challenges if they can count on a good measure of security.

5. In the broad sweep of history, Afghanistan has been around for a long time: since 3000 B.C. One has to wonder where North America was in 3000 B.C. Afghanistan has suffered attacks, defeats, and partial occupation but it has never been conquered. Even Alexander the Great had flattering comments to make when he traversed it about 2300 years ago.

6. When I first went to Afghanistan in March 2001, there were very few cars on the streets of Kabul, few men, and even fewer women. Today, traffic jams are frequent. Some would call this progress in a materialistic sense. Buildings are now sprouting up in the four major centers of Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar. A paved ring road connecting these four centers which are in the four corners of Afghanistan, a paved ring road is well on its way to completion.

7. But what about rural Afghanistan where 60% of the population live in their traditional villages? If you go inside that great circle, that is where 60% of the people live. And they live as they have been living for hundreds and thousands of years.

8. The first time I visited the Shydon Valley, in the western part of Bamiyan province, a group of teenagers, who had been demobilized from the warlords’ militias, they had been sent home. They were sent back to their villages, and they came - these young people, teenagers - and they told us very bluntly, that what they wanted most was to go to school. They said that all we know how to do is shoot a gun. We have never had a chance to go school. And so they wanted a school. And we - the NGO Future Generations - replied, if you build yourselves a school, we will find you a teacher. They did and we did. Education is one of the most sought after goals in Afghanistan. And just to tell you how they did this (their first school) we said to them you have to go away and think of how to build your school. They came back several days later and they said we have it all figured out. We know exactly what we are going to do. And they said, each one of us has to go away and make 2000 mud bricks. We will bring them back and we will build our school. And this is what they did. They came back, each one lugging these 2000 mud bricks, and they set to work and they built themselves a two-room school, where the boys went in one room and the girls in another. This is out in Hesar country, out in Bamiyan province. Bamiyan province you may remember, is where the giant Buddha’s were destroyed. So, they built this two room school. Now I can tell you, it is no great feat of architecture, but it is their school and they are very proud of it. And since that day, they have been adding wings on it so that it now has a number of classrooms. As I say, education is one of the most sought after goals in Afghanistan.

9. The Afghan people are hardworking and ingenious. Most villages have no electricity, so it means when the sun goes down their mud brick huts are without any kind of light. Abdullah Barat, who is originally from Afghanistan, is a man who I persuaded to leave his well-paid job in Ottawa, to return to his native Bamiyan, and work with Future Generations. I had run across Abdullah in the Afghan community in Ottawa and I was looking for people to go back out to Afghanistan. Abdullah had a very good job; he like a number Afghan people in Canada, he works with pizza parlors. Only he had graduated beyond working in a pizza parlor. He was now managing ten pizza parlors in eastern Ontario. And I persuaded him to leave that and go back to Bamiyan. And there, he led the rebuilding of the devastated villages in the Shydon valley. In cooperation with another NGO, Norwegian Church Aid, he undertook a program of buying, installing and maintaining solar panels on the roofs of the little mud brick huts. And I can tell you it is always sunny, brilliant sunshine for much of the year, even in the cold of winter.

10. The energy collected in these solar panels is transferred to a battery inside each house and from there it is connected to neon rod light installed in the ceiling. And that artificial light immediately changes the lives of the villagers. Children are able to study in the evenings, women can do their weaving, and men can attend to their many chores. Many tasks are simplified by the use of battery power.

11. But that is not all. Wind and water power are also being harnessed to provide additional power. And the water is also filtered to provide clean drinking water. That is making such a difference because so many children, previously, had died of diarrhea, prolonged diarrhea. And one has to ask, how did all this happen?

12. Primarily because the villagers came together under the leadership of Abdullah Barat, to develop a work plan and discuss how they should proceed, they decided to elect their own local council or Shura. Now these Shura's meet on a weekly basis, discuss the needs of the village, and select the priorities for action. Records are kept of each meeting. This exercise started in just one village in the Shydon valley but other villages were impressed and decided to emulate them. And if this sounds like cooperative work, I am sure you can see the similarities that existed with the movement that started here.

13. Today, all 75 villages in the Shydon valley have formed their own local councils. Their next step was to form a valley Shura, which meets monthly. And it is here that local disputes are resolved before they escalate into wider conflict. In the past 4 years since the Shura system has been put in place, hundreds of local disputes have been resolved through discussion and compromise. The Shura members, the council members, see this as one of their key accomplishments.

14. One year ago, the capital of Bamiyan province, Bamiyan town, elected its council and for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, a woman was elected to head the council. Four of the 10 members of that Shura are women. This is a breakthrough indeed. In addition, Bamiyan province is the only one of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan to have a woman governor.

15. To sum up, I think the international effort in Afghanistan is important to Canada. And not just militarily, although I support the work of our Canadian Forces in Kandahar and elsewhere. But even more, Afghanistan needs long term development such as Abdullah Barat and his team of Afghan volunteers are carrying out.

16. The accomplishments that these Bamiyan people are making and their belief that what they are doing makes a difference, contributes greatly to the stability of that province. This is not to belittle the work that is being done along humanitarian lines by the military itself and other organizations, but it is not long term development. To carry that out properly, Canadians have to gain a better understanding of the complexities of the Afghan people including the diversity of their religions, their ideologies and their ethnicities.

17. These are the things that make up their national psyche and they are at the root of much of their internal discord. It is important to learn from Afghans themselves and particularly to learn about their capabilities.

18. One of the capabilities that comes to the fore frequently, is their spirit of resistance when things get really difficult. Since my return to Canada in June, Abdullah's office has been ransacked and robbed with the culprits making off with all our communications equipment in the building (computers, cell phones, digital phones, etc.). That was a blow. Abdullah was in a position of not being able to get in touch with anyone. His solution was to walk to the nearest town, or village, and use the computer of a friend, to let me know what had happened.

19. We have raised the funds to get Abdullah a new computer and cell phone and he is back out in the villages getting more of their mud brick houses solar-electrified against the onslaught of the winter cold. And as usually happens, snow frequently cuts off access to villages in the high mountain valleys. In Afghanistan, the hardy villagers take life one day at a time.

20. What I have tried to describe to you tonight is how one person, Abdullah Barat, recognizing the urgent need for leadership across the boundaries and borders of geography, ethnicity, and historical feuds in Afghanistan, is finding the means to do so and compelling others to surmount these challenges.

21. As I said at the outset, Afghanistan is still a country caught between two potential futures: a fragile democracy that moves forward, or a failed state. Afghanistan is finding a means - and compelling others - to surmount these challenges. But given the current situation in Afghanistan, I must say, that the jury is still out.

Thank you.


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