Peter O’Neil , Canwest News Service
Published: Thursday, September 11, 2008

PARIS – Three young Canadian diplomats are on the front line of a fierce political battle to defend the Afghanistan counter-insurgency and reconstruction mission, which has been pummelled over the summer by a string of Taliban military and propaganda coups.

United Nations senior Afghanistan political adviser Chris Alexander and North Atlantic Treaty Organization spokesman James Appathurai – who met as 13-year-old schoolboys in Toronto – and their friend, Arif Lalani, who just left his post as Canada’s ambassador in Kabul, are all high-profile mission defenders in the Canadian and international media.

The trio acknowledge the job is getting more challenging.

Appathurai said this week he presented NATO ambassadors with a new communications plan to counter the surprisingly sophisticated Taliban tactics aimed at grinding down the morale of foreign soldiers, politicians and the public of the more than 40 countries with troops in Afghanistan.

He cited as a showcase example the Taliban ambush last month that left 10 French troops dead and 21 injured.

It was followed by a controversial photo display in the mass-circulation magazine Paris Match, where Taliban were photographed equipped with the uniforms, guns and equipment of the slain soldiers.

Many French were infuriated – with President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Taliban or Paris Match, depending on who was complaining – and it stoked a smouldering national debate over the mission.

Appathurai, spokesman and adviser to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, acknowledged that soldiers are doing dirty and dangerous work. But he said Afghanistan’s fate could very well be won or lost in western democracies such as Canada, which has seen the deaths of 97 soldiers and one diplomat since 2002.

“I really believe that the battle for public understanding and public support is a strategic centre of gravity for this whole operation, as much as the military battle,” Appathurai told Canwest News Service.

“We will never lose a military exchange with the Taliban – even if they can inflict a lot of damage. But we can be outlasted if public support wanes in national parliaments and in general public opinion.”

The Taliban are exploiting their military successes, as well as civilian deaths caused by NATO and U.S. bombs, on their website, which communicates in five languages and is updated several times daily.

Appathurai is planning to expand NATO’s efforts to get its own “good news” message to Afghans, and to boost the ability of President Hamid Karzai’s government to take over from NATO as the main information source for Afghan journalists.

Alexander and Lalani, who is now on academic leave and is senior visiting fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Affairs, take a similar approach.

Alexander, who helped convince the former Canadian government to send troops to the dangerous Kandahar region when he was ambassador in Kabul from 2003 to 2005, said he takes solace in comparing the current situation to what existed when he arrived – when there was no Afghan National Army and a relatively tiny foreign presence.

“It’s senseless violence, the very definition of terror, and it’s hard to take,” said Alexander, who took a leave from the Canadian foreign service to join the UN in 2005 and is now UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s deputy special representative in Afghanistan.

“But I only continue to believe that a better future is possible for Afghanistan, because I know what was close to the starting point.”

Because of their diverse backgrounds, the three friends collectively could be poster children for Canadian multiculturalism.

Alexander is a fifth-generation Canadian of Scottish, English and Irish descent. Appathurai is a first-generation Canadian whose parents immigrated from Sri Lanka.

Lalani came to Canada with his family as refugees in the early 1970s to escape crazed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s crackdown on the Ismaili Muslims there.

“People are seeing three very different faces of Canada,” said Lalani, 40, who until last month headed Canada’s fifth-largest embassy in the world, which oversees an annual aid budget in Afghanistan approaching $300 million.

“It’s kind of funny how it turned out, that we ended up in such prominent positions on the same file, but it’s good because we understand each other” and can reinforce each other’s public messaging, Lalani said.

Alexander and Appathurai, also both 40, first met as they entered their teen years at the University of Toronto Schools, a U of T feeder school for bright youngsters. They became friends with Lalani, a graduate of the University of B.C., when the three entered the Canadian public service in Ottawa during the early 1990s.

Lalani joined the Canadian foreign service in 1991 at the same time Alexander did. The two became fast friends.

Appathurai was a latecomer to the Canadian public service, joining the Department of National Defence as a policy officer in 1994. Four years later, Appathurai, who met Lalani through mutual friends in Ottawa, moved to NATO to become a speech writer.

All three talk about adrenalin-charged “public service moments” where they feel they’re influencing international developments.

Appathurai mentions the time he played a role in NATO’s decision to help airlift African Union troops to Darfur, while Alexander and Lalani regularly stress what they consider under-reported success stories in areas such as education, health and agriculture.

“You can get a true satisfaction from public service that you simply cannot get at an investment bank,” Appathurai said.

“Many of my friends are in investment banks. Even they recognize (there is) a hollow element to their jobs.”

While no one challenges their qualifications for the NATO and UN posts, Lalani said both Appathurai and Alexander might have had a tougher time getting those positions had Canada stayed on the sidelines in Afghanistan.

“It does reflect that they (NATO and the UN) take Canada seriously,” Lalani said.

But NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer bristled at the suggestion Canadians might get an advantage in competing for top diplomatic posts against candidates from countries not pulling their weight.

“James and Chris Alexander are A-1-class diplomats, and they’re both outstanding guys,” he told Canwest.

“I think they were chosen based on their individual qualities and not because their nation participates in such an excellent way as Canada does in Afghanistan.”

Name: Arif Lalani

Born: Oct. 22, 1967, Mbarara, Uganda

Education: BA, University of B.C., (international relations), 1989.

In his own words: “For a kid who, at five years old, had to leave a country because of war and come to Canada, it always kind of gets to me when we’re able at least to look for that one kid whose life we changed because we managed to rehabilitate his school. It’s very personal. And this job allows you to do that.”

Name: James Appathurai

Born: Aug. 7, 1968, Toronto

Education: BA, University of Toronto, (history/political science), 1991. University of Amsterdam, MA (international relations), 1993.

In his own words: “This is always where I wanted to be. My mother was very surprised, and frankly slightly horrified, when I told her when I was 14 I wanted to go to NATO.”

Name: Chris Alexander

Born: Sept. 9, 1968, Toronto

Education: BA, McGill University, Montreal, (history/political science), 1988. MA, Oxford University, England, (philosophy, politics and economics), 1991.

In his own words: “It’s very surprising to see the three of us connected to this story, and I think that says a lot about what Afghanistan has become, in terms of the importance that is attached to it for the UN, for NATO, and for countries like Canada.”


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