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Whether we can solve a problem like Afghanistan November 10, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in Asia, Canadian development policy, development assistance, NATO, Peacekeeping, South Asia, war.
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A former ambassador to Canada insists life has improved in his country since the NATO invasion. Can it be rebuilt – and if so, at what cost?

Remembrance Day this year will be cause for reflection perhaps even more than usual in our country. Canadian troops may have pulled out of Afghanistan, but no one is about to forget their contribution there – and Canada’s continued involvement in the country – any time soon.

Of the armed forces sent there, 158 returned in body bags. Defense spending alone has totaled at least $8 B, with some estimates placing it at up to $16 B. Meanwhile, Canada spent an average of $150 M a year for development assistance during its military deployment, with a high of 280 million dollars in 2007-2008. That amount was set to drop to $100 M per year from 2011 to 2014.

Did any of it make any difference?

According to one Afghan former official: absolutely. On November 8th, the Munk School of Global Affairs invited former External Affairs and Defense Minister William Graham to converse with former Afghan ambassador to Canada Omar Samad. Mr. Samad speaks with the zeal of the faithful, even though his diplomatic obligations are now behind him after a stint in France. “I do not consider the Canadian mission as a failure… Afghanistan today is a far better place than it was 10 years ago,” he insisted.

When Graham spoke of the disagreements he had in Cabinet with the minister responsible for development at the time, given the uncertainty of financial aid getting to where it was directed, Samad acknowledged that “corruption has become endemic, unfortunately… There was mismanagement of aid. We didn’t know how to prioritize it, or how to coordinate aid.” However, he stated that GNP and GDP in Afghanistan have quadrupled in the last ten years, while revenue collection has gone from zero under the Taliban to $2 B in the past year.

Several sources confirm the country’s rapid growth in the past decade. However, cynics might be forgiven for pointing out that the exponential increase started from a very low point; Afghanistan today remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per-capita GDP of $900 U.S. and a life expectancy of 45 years. The literacy rate, meanwhile, is 28 per cent – for women, only 12.6 per cent.

Does the drop in aid corresponding to Canadian troop withdrawal signal Canadian disengagement from Afghanistan altogether? To Samad, “I personally think it was a huge mistake to give an end date. It should be phrased differently… A defeatist mentality doesn’t help us. It helps the other side.”

What incentives does Canada have to continue to care? Geopolitics, for one: Afghanistan is at the crossroads of several strategic states. It shares a border with nuclear-capable Pakistan, Iran, several Central Asian republics such as oil-rich Uzbekistan, and China. To some, it also shares a border with India through Jammu and Kashmir. India’s interest in the country has also been expressed in a recent $500 M aid pledge. Meanwhile, China is the biggest investor in Afghanistan, but “wants stability first”, explains Samad.

As it stands, Samad makes a convincing case for continuing aid to Afghanistan and keeping an eye on the region. The question, now as before, is how – and how much.

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