Canada and the troubled Pak-Afghan borderlands
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Islamabad April 25, 2008
Canada currently maintains 2,500 soldiers in the embattled Afghanistan’s Kandahar region, many of whom are running one of the 26 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) as well. Besides, Canada emerged as the third largest donor in 2007, with about 300 million dollars, preceded only by the United States and the United Kingdom. This makes Canada's Afghanistan engagement as the largest overseas, since the 1954 Korean War, thereby making it one of the most debated issues inside Canada itself.
The bulk of 300 million, close to 128 million dollars, went for education related projects, and the micro-finance programme, which has benefited about half a million needy, two-thirds of whom are women.
Soon after agreeing to become part of the coalition against terrorism and its troops’ deployment, Canada had pledged 1.2 billion dollars until 2011, and currently Afghanistan tops as the largest development programme. Canada is also helping in the Law and Order Trust Fund (LOTF), under which an eight-week retraining of police will be shortly initiated for the over 60,000 Afghan police. Provision of container scanners at Chamman border, training for Afghan border police, and support to UN-led programmes such capacity building of authorities and interdiction of narcotics in border regions are all part of the policy.
In addition to its social sector funding, Canada has also launched an initiative called the ‘Dubai Process’ that began with a Cooperation Workshop of Afghan and Pakistani officials for participation held between October 30-November 1, 2007.
The participants, a diplomat told Pulse in Kabul, identified the following four non-binding high priority operational areas where greater cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan would contribute to increased stability, security and economic development:
1. Connecting government to the people through social and economic development;
2. Customs (trade facilitation and transit, revenue collection, security);
3. Managing the movement of people;
4. Counter – Narcoticsv
A follow up meeting under the Dubai Process is likely to take place in Islamabad first week of May, with participation from both countries. This engagement also underscores an entirely new dimension of the Canadian foreign policy, which appears to be a conscious effort to get out from under the shadows of the United States.
The Dubai process becomes even more critical in view of the threats and warnings that regularly emanate from Washington and London. Whether Nato officials in Kabul or ministers of the Karzai administration or visiting foreign dignitaries, almost all keep echoing Washington’s concerns; the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, for instance, said during his April 13 visit to the Nato air base in southern Kandahar with his Canadian counterpart Maxime Bernier, that Taliban violence in Afghanistan could only be stopped with the aid of Pakistan, where rebels operate in lawless border areas.
"This is an Afghan-Pakistan problem, but this incredible looseness which allows all sorts of trafficking cannot be allowed to continue …further military means are needed in order for the process of securing Afghanistan to proceed... but there must also be a regional view, particularly with regards to Pakistan," Kouchner told media during the visit.
"This border problem needs to be resolved, and if we can take part in that process, that would be great," Kouchner said, resonating the concerns that underlie the Dubai Process.
"Our ties have been growing better and better and we hope the Canadian-led Dubai process would further cement the relationship," Khaled Zekriya, director general for 5th political division, told TFT. He was evasive on the issues such as rejection by Afghans of the biometrics system Pakistan had introduced at the Chaman border, yet he says the Afghan government is eager to continue discussions on all issues with the objective of "synchronizing positions in the larger interest of both the countries."
Canadians themselves are also enthusiastic about the new role they are playing under the Nato flagship
"In 20 years from now historians would judge Afghanistan as a watershed in the Canadian history," said a senior official in Kabul. He said that the Afghanistan engagement has drawn Canada out of the laid-back attitude vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
The young Canadian ambassador, Arif Lalani in Kabul, however, was more candid.
"The post 9/11 situation has confronted us with a new challenge and that is as to where does Canada stand when it comes to international engagement," said Lalani, who takes pride in his country's pro-active role in bringing Pakistan and Afghanistan together as well as on choosing key areas for rehabilitation and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
"Besides our military engagement, we chose education as the main sector for financing because we believe there is no way around education," Lalani said.
Arif Lalani, the Canadian ambassador in Kabul, says that his government's engagement in the social and education sector essentially underscores the need for strengthening the socio-economic sectors and the communities living in border areas through socio-economic initiatives
If successful these initiatives can also help in stabilising the Pakistan-Afghan relationship – which have been hot and cold since the demise of the Taliban regime in December 2001.
At least until early last year, Afghan officials dismissed such suggestions as mere "gimmicks employed by the Pakistani establishment to cover up its nexus with the insurgents.
During an international conference in Kabul about three years ago, Defense Minister General Rahim Wardak had openly lambasted Pakistan's role in the tribal areas criticising ‘little action from the Pakistani side to change things’.
Ironically, Wardak’s view on the borderlands has radically changed; sometime last year, the defense minister told the Policy Advisory Group (PAG) - a consultative forum for the guidance of the Afghan government, that all need to address the improvement and reinforcement of socio-economic aspects of life on both sides of the Durand Line. ‘Only then can we counter the insurgency in the long run,’ was Wardak's suggestion and it triggered a new debate on how to remove irritants from the Pak-Afghan relations, which essentially is intricately linked with the conditions in the tribal areas.
This interesting recommendation apparently went down well with the 40 nations that are currently part of the anti-terror international coalition in Afghanistan. This, according to a Western diplomat, also made sense in view of the huge swathes of land along the Durand Line that had for decades practically remained ungoverned and inaccessible.
Obviously sane elements in both countries kept demanding a holistic approach for containing the spiraling insurgency and then eventually rooting it out. This necessitated the management of the border region in a way that would on the one hand allow the legitimate flow of people and goods between Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the other prevent illicit movement of materials and insurgents.
Many Western European diplomats and analysts based in Kabul also demonstrated greater understanding for the need of such a comprehensive strategy across the Durand Line as a necessary condition for long-term stability, security and economic development in both countries.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.