Arif LalaniBy Graham Thomson

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Calling Afghanistan the most underdeveloped country in which he has ever worked, Canada’s ambassador here says Canadians “should be realistic” about how much progress can be achieved before Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar province ends in 2011.

“What is hard for Canadians to understand, as it is for the public in the rest of the Western countries, is just how big the development task is here,” said Arif Lalani, who is packing his bags to leave the country after a 15-month posting in Kabul. “This is an extremely underdeveloped country. It’s the most underdeveloped country I have worked in. And it has had 30 years of war.”

Lalani’s comments in a telephone interview reflect a lowering of expectations by the federal government on what Canada can do to improve the situation in an impoverished country where insurgent-led violence has increased over the past year.

“We have had a tough summer both in terms of Kabul and Kandahar in terms of security incidents,” said Lalani, making a reference to almost daily attacks on soldiers and civilians by Taliban fighters whose most spectacular assault involved freeing almost all the prisoners at the Sarpoza prison in Kandahar City in June. The escalating violence has meant more American troops are dying in Afghanistan than Iraq, and insurgents seem to be destroying schools as fast as coalition countries can build them.

However, Lalani – who has worked as a Canadian diplomat in Jordan, Iraq, Georgia and Azerbaijan – said the news isn’t all bad. He defended Canada’s record on development work that includes helping feed countless Afghans, immunizing thousands of children against polio and taking the lead on building a national education system.

“When we have setbacks it’s too easy to think that any bad day ruins whole years of work and that’s just not true,” said Lalani who credits the work of the NATO-led coalition in general and Canada’s help in particular with improving life in Afghanistan since 2003 – even if the improvements don’t always look impressive at first glance.

“When we look five years later at Kabul City or Kandahar City and there are tin stores with a paved road with some basic lighting selling some basic things well into the evening, that actually is a sign of recovery and success. But it may not look like it if we’re expecting a higher level of development. I think that’s the hard part for people to understand, just how basic it is and how difficult the challenge is to move this community, to get around 30 years of war.”

Experts, including several Canadian military officials, have said any long-lasting reconstruction work will take decades. With such a huge task still ahead, Lalani confirmed Canada’s development work will carry on after Canadian troops leave under a parliamentary order in 2011.

“Our development program is going to continue, and that means our development work will continue. So, I think we need to look at how that’s going to take shape in 2011.”

What is not clear is how Canada will deliver that development help in Kandahar province. At this point, it’s not even known whether Canadian civil servants who now administer the programs will be pulled out along with the soldiers and sent to another part of the country, or whether they would remain and do their work under the protection of whichever NATO country takes over the combat mission from Canada.

One possibility would see the development work handed over to non-governmental agencies, such as the Aga Khan Foundation, which already does anti-poverty projects with Canadian money in Bamiyan province under the protection of New Zealand troops.

“Development assistance is very dependent on security but it’s not dependent just on Canadians providing security,” said Lalani. “Canada has projects in the north, in the east, in the west of this country where we’re implementing projects where other troops are actually providing the security. So let’s not forget that we work throughout the country, not just where we have Canadian soldiers.”

No country has yet volunteered to take Canada’s combat role in the volatile Kandahar province, which remains the heartland of Taliban support. The United States might be the most obvious candidate, having already promised to send 1,000 troops to help Canadians sometime this year while American politicians talk about sending thousands of troops to Afghanistan next year.

Another possibility suggested by Canadian senators who wrote a report entitled “How are we doing in Afghanistan?” is that Canada will decide not to pull out of Kandahar as planned because it will have fallen short of its goals.

The alternative, though, seems to be to shrink the goals, not extend the mission.

Canada has adopted new, moderate priorities for progress which replaced its once lofty ambition of undermining the Taliban as an effective fighting force and substantially cutting the opium trade.

Canada is now focused on the delivery of humanitarian assistance, enhancing border security with Pakistan and promoting law and order.

“Canadians should be realistic about what we’re doing,” said Lalani, “but they should be proud of what Canada is doing here.”

Lalani will be leaving Afghanistan within days but his exact departure date is a secret for security reasons. His replacement has not yet been announced.

Edmonton Journal

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