Diplomacy

OUR MAN IN KABUL

Chris Alexander has lofty goals for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan

SALLY ARMSTRONG December 15 2003
Diplomacy

OUR MAN IN KABUL

Chris Alexander has lofty goals for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan

SALLY ARMSTRONG December 15 2003

OUR MAN IN KABUL

Chris Alexander has lofty goals for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan

Diplomacy

SALLY ARMSTRONG

THE RAPIDS on the Ashuapmushuan River in northern Quebec were boiling with fivefoot standing waves, so most of the intrepid adventurers on a late-spring canoe trip decided to portage. Not Chris Alexander. He wanted to take the risk and test his skills against the formidable whitewater. It took all of his strength and experience to negotiate the wild stretch of river without dumping the canoe, but he made it.

Recalling the occasion while sitting in his office in Kabul, Alexander says he approached the rapids with “a little trepidation and a lot of anticipation.” It’s a fitting strategy for his new assignment, as Canada’s first-ever

ambassador to Afghanistan. There is potential for severe turbulence in the jobstrides have been made since the war ended in December 2001, but the country remains unstable and dangerous for Afghans and foreigners alike. Despite that, though, the young (he’s 35), six-foot-three, blue-eyed blond from Toronto has already begun to make his mark in Kabul, in part because he has some clout. Canada, with 2,000 troops in the country and a commitment of $250 million in direct funding, ranks fourth be-

hind the U.S., Germany and Japan on the list of countries rebuilding Afghanistan.

Because of that, everyone wants a piece of Alexander. President Hamid Karzai says the ambassador, whose two-year posting started in August, is already the best foreign representative currently in Afghanistan. And wherever Alexander goes, he’s pulled aside for private chats—by foreign affairs minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah on the palace grounds, for instance, or by UN special envoy Lakdar Brahimi at a press conference. At the few eateries in Kabul where foreigners gather, he’s sought out for his opinion, his predictions and, to those who

know he’s single, his availability as a date.

He’s already shown a keen sensitivity to the political difficulties Karzai faces. In a meeting with Afghan officials, Alexander talked about how, from the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 to the current post-Taliban era, several Muslim countries have tried to “shape” the future of the region. That’s diplomatic-speak for the destabilizing influence Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to exert on the politics of Afghanistan, but Afghan leaders understood it very well. “Alexander gave a quick analysis of the situation here and of our relationship with our neighbours,” says Omar Daoudzai, Karzai’s chief of staff. “That made a lasting impression with the president.”

His youth and original ideas are his strongest suits. Afghanistan’s problems maybe old and entrenched, but 40 per cent of Afghans are under 30 and aren’t indoctrinated by old tribal feuds and ancient antifemale traditions. “They are key to the coming election,” Alexander says. “There are no jihadists or mujahedeen among them. Many of them were educated in refugee camps in Pakistan. They’ve never voted before. That’s quite a cohort.”

‘THE traditional view on the treatment of women here doesn’t stand up to either Afghan or international scrutiny’

A huge council meeting on Dec. 13 of as many as 750 tribal representatives, called a Loya Jirga, could determine whether Afghanistan will slip back into civil war or continue its incremental progress. The leaders will try to reach consensus on a new national constitution, and Canada has an important role to play in the process. “We’re committed to the political success,” Alexander says, “but in more concrete terms, the Loya Jirga takes place at the Polytechnique, in Sector West, the area our military actively patrols.” He says those troops have to assume there are people who don’t want the meeting to unfold in peace, and adds: “We are part of the team to make sure it does.”

An affable but no-nonsense diplomat, he seems comfortable in a modest office that doubles as a secure room for the staff. There are maps on the wall, a safe, a tacky rattan settee, shatter-proofed windows. Steel shutters open to the sunshine but can close in a moment to seal the room from attack. The staff living quarters are equally cramped. The 11

members of the Canadian contingent live in one large house in the upscale Wazir Akhbar Khan district of Kabul. Each person has a private bedroom, but everything else is shared—living quarters, kitchen, dining and bathrooms. “It’s close quarters,” Alexander admits. “But it’s working well.” He encourages staff to leave the country every two months for a weekend, usually in Dubai.

Alexander is already clear on the major issues. The constitution that will be debated at the Loya Jirga is “not a perfect document, but we’re satisfied it has liberal Afghan elements that are broadly acceptable,” he says. On women’s issues— “Women are sidelined in almost every walk of life”—he’s adamant. To those who say

that’s the Afghan way, he replies: “Show a little courage. The traditional view on the treatment of women doesn’t stand up to either Afghan or international scrutiny.” When Rassoul Sayyaf, a renowned warlord, asks for a meeting, Alexander agrees to talk, but only about disarmament. He’s working with the principal of a school being rebuilt with Canadian funds, making sure the woman gets what she needs. When the president of Ariana Afghan Airlines comes calling, he recommends a meeting with Bom-

bardier to look at Dash-8 planes for intercity travel in Afghanistan. On the woefully inadequate security situation, he has already called on NATO to increase its military presence in the country to bolster peacekeeping capabilities.

Alexander seems to thrive amid chaos, but he’s had practice. He spent six years in Russia, the last three in the number-two post at the Canadian embassy in Moscow. Fluent in Russian (as well as French and German), he’s fascinated by the former Soviet Union, and his interest in Afghanistan arose out of studying the conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia. “The defining showdown of the 20th century was the confrontation between the Warsaw Pact and those who favour free markets and democracy,” Alexander says. “The conflict here in Afghanistan was the final and most violent instalment in that whole story. You can only understand why the Soviet Union is no longer and Russia has arisen on its ruins by understanding the history of Afghanistan.”

For the new Canadian embassy, he has set four goals. “If we can play a prominent role in adopting the constitution, holding elections, building institutions and getting the economy off the ground, everyone would be entirely satisfied.” All of that, he says, is achievable, but Afghanistan could just as easily go off the rails. “Progress is not inevitable,” he says. “Countries can go into reverse. War is an obvious factor, but neglect, isolation and repression are other factors that can push a country backwards.” So can the $18-billion-a-year opium trade, because warlords dependent on drug money are not likely to lend their support to a strong central government that cracks down on the trade. “There wouldn’t be warlords without the poppy,” Alexander says.

For safety reasons—the country is still littered with land mines—he has yet to get out to the real Afghanistan, to the mountains and whitewater rivers. For him, exploring the outdoors is “the fastest, most effective way to throw off the blinkers and the straightjacket of urban life. I’ll find a way to go out hiking, skiing, paddling whitewater—I’ll just have to work with the mine-action people.” After all, he’s a guy who likes to take risks. I?il