Afghanistan: New Role, New Challenges


By: Geoff Vendeville

Bill Graham (left) listens intently as Omar Samad speculates about Afghanistan’s future

Bill Graham (left) listens intently as Omar Samad speculates about Afghanistan’s future

Geoff Vendeville

In July, Canada ended its combat mission in Afghanistan, leaving a small number of troops to advise and train the Afghan National Security Forces until total withdrawal in 2014. Last Tuesday, Bill Graham, chancellor of Trinity College and former minister of Foreign Affairs and National Defence, met with Omar Samad, Afghan ambassador in Ottawa from 2004 to 2009, at the Munk School of Global Affairs to reflect on the war – the longest in Canadian history – and to discuss the future of Afghanistan.

The consensus: Despite some flaws in its execution, the war in Afghanistan was certainly justified. Although the country is still a long way from peace and stability, much progress has been made.

Samad saluted the Canadians deployed to Afghanistan and expressed his sympathy for the families of the 158 soldiers who gave their lives, including Master Corporal Bryan Greff who was killed in action two weeks ago.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Samad became a political refugee and moved to the United States where he studied at the American University in Washington, D.C. and at Tufts University. However, Samad said, “Afghanistan always remained the focus of my life.” Following his service as the Afghan ambassador to Canada he was appointed ambassador to France.

Drawing on years of diplomatic experience, Graham and Samad untangled the web of complications preventing a firm resolution to the war in Afghanistan: ethnic divisions, corrupt Afghan politicians, incoherent and conflicting foreign policies, and – most importantly – the tension between India and Pakistan. “In my understanding,” Graham said, “a lot of the problems stem from the fact that Afghanistan is caught in the middle of the India-Pakistan rivalry.” Iranian and Chinese involvement in Afghanistan has further aggravated the situation, he added.

“You have just described how complex the situation is,” Samad replied. “We in Afghanistan feel that we are seen by strategists in both countries [India and Pakistan] as a side player for their rivalry… Our strategy is not to use any third country against somebody else. We would not like to be a target of the same game – whether it’s the Iranians playing it, or the Indians, or anyone.”

Still, Samad remains “cautiously optimistic” that conditions in Afghanistan will improve. “Education, healthcare, civil society – these are all areas in which gains have been significant,” he told the newspaper. The priority now, he argued, is to prevent any backsliding and to resist defeatism. “There is a lot at stake in Afghanistan…We cannot totally dismiss it and say, ‘Well, things are not going to change.’ They will change.”

Samad described Canada’s new advisory role in Afghanistan as a “natural transition and essential program, not only for state building, but also for consolidating past gains and making future progress.”

At the end of the discussion Samad took questions from the audience. Mohammad Rustam Zadran, an Afghan student majoring in International Relations at U of T, asked if the existence of terrorist hideouts in Pakistan is crippling Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Samad agreed that Afghan policy is inconsistent. “That question is on the minds of many Afghan policymakers,” he said. “They are critical of Afghan policy… There seems to be a disconnect in the government somewhere.”

For Graham, the war in Afghanistan underscored the need to strike a proper balance between “soft” and “hard” power, moral persuasion and military might. “As we said in the ministry: a robust defense is derivative of foreign policy, but foreign policy is dependent on military capacity.”

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