Amidst the death threats, Chris Alexander tries to fix the problems of Afghanistan



Amidst the death threats, Chris Alexander tries to fix the problems of Afghanistan




Amidst the death threats, Chris Alexander tries to fix the problems of Afghanistan


Christopher Alexander is in the eye of the storm that is Afghanistan today. As a United Nations deputy special representative of the secretary-general here, his responsibilities include security, governance and human rights. And by all accounts, the Canadian diplomatic Wunderkind is in for a long, hot summer. The Taliban insurgency in the south is ever bolder. The poppy harvest is on track to rack up a record US$8 billion. The UN program to disband the warlords’ illegally armed militias has stalled. Suffice to say June has

been the worst month of President Hamid Karzai’s life, and the busiest for Alexander.

“Failure is definitely an option,” he says. “This is a fragile state.” But Alexander, 37, scoffs at the notion that recent events have made Afghanistan akin to Baghdad. “Those who say that simply haven’t read enough history. Unlike the Baghdad green zone, the streets of Kabul are safer in the last six months than they have been at any time during the transition.” And the usually affable diplomat is affronted by the suggestion that nationbuilding is beyond Afghans. “That is quite

frankly not the case. We need to dispense with these insulting assumptions.”

In the meantime, though, this fractious nation is consuming hundreds of millions of Canadian tax dollars, with almost $100 million per year pledged through to 201011. On top of that, military operations in or related to Afghanistan since 9/11 have consumed almost $2 billion. Canadians are asking tough questions about the return on this massive investment. But Alexander is confident that if the international community stays the course and does what’s necessary to set conditions for peace, a democratic Afghanistan “will emerge and economic growth will be spectacular by the standards of the last half-century.”

Alexander’s job is to stay in touch with the principal players and set an agenda everyone can live with. Not an easy task given who’s involved: President Karzai, highly visible in his Persian lamb hat and flamboyant cape; the Americans, who are currently in charge with their Operation Enduring Freedom; NATO, soon to take over the lead, with Canada and its 2,300 soldiers possibly taking over command of the coalition before fall; and about 31 million Afghans who hope Alexander and his UN mission get it right.

Stickhandling such an experiment in nation building is Alexander’s forte. He’s in close touch with Canadian Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, who is in charge of the regional command of NATO in the southern provinces, including Kandahar. Fraser, who sees Kandahar as the strategic centre of gravity, says, “The situation is active but the sky is not falling.” His British chief of staff, Lt.-Col. Chris Vernon, adds,“We’re pushing troops into places we’ve never been before. It’s not a cakewalk.”

Neither is Alexander’s job. He works 14-hour days and often deals with death threats, some of them quite credible. He travels with bodyguards in an armoured vehicle from his office in the UN compound to meetings scattered about Kabul, and the charming home he shares with his partner Hedvig Boserup, a cover-girl beauty who came to Afghanistan as an officer in the Danish army and met

Alexander when she took a job at the UN. (She is now a program officer with a nongovernmental organization that helps the private sector get businesses running in the country.) An outdoor enthusiast, Alexander has had to limit his jogging to an indoor track, but thumbs his nose at security some weekends and goes hiking with friends at Kapisa in the famed Hindu Kush.

He also has an evacuation plan that can be enacted in a nanosecond. In short, he loves being in this place at this time. “Despite what you see on TV, things are happening here,” he says. “There is an appetite for change, and change is possible. Afghans have come to that conclusion after trying so many other options, most of them violent.”

IT’S EARLY MORNING, and Alexander is just back from a 10-day trip out of the country, defending his budget at the UN in New York City and attending the Young Global Leaders summit in Vancouver. He’s trying to get up to speed when he realizes that one of the UN’s Afghan programs—the highly prized Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) —has gone pear-shaped.

Alexander quickly calls a meeting, leaves the compound and heads over to the Japanese embassy to see the ambassador, who is charged with fulfilling the DIAG promise made just five months ago in the heralded Afghanistan Compact.

The ambassador tells him the bad news: the target for disarming militias set for the end of 2007 cannot be met. They need to slow down, regroup. Alexander picks his way through the file, asks for a meeting with First Deputy Minister of Defence Yusuf Nuristani, his DIAG interlocutor, to get the facts. But first he needs to talk with his chief of staff, Sergiy Illarionov.

They run through half a dozen issues. On the growing insurgency, Alexander tells him, “The secretary-general’s report is due in September. The part about the insurgency has to be done very carefully. I don’t want anyone saying they weren’t told.” On the increasing worry about security at the UN compound, which unfortunately is a direct neighbour of the coalition forces headquarters, he wants more action. “Everyone is waiting for the big bomb. Until the reinforcement of the compound is complete, that building [on the perimeter] should not be occupied.” Illarionov weaves another concern into the morning mix. “We’re in trouble. I don’t think the majority of the population is ready

for changes like the newly appointed government telling village elders about projects they haven’t been consulted about. All they see is corruption and the daily routine of fighting for power in the government.” It’s a subject that’s on everyone’s mind.

The clock is ticking. Alexander is late for another meeting. On the way to see Nuristani, he explains why it’s taking so long to subdue the Taliban. While in New York, the former UN éminence grise in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, told him that the coalition should have finished off the Taliban four years ago when the UN took over. At that time the freshly defeated Taliban were disorganized, disillusioned and scattered. Now they are better organized, have access to technology, and easy contact anywhere in the world via conference calls. Alexander says he can name 100 Taliban commanders who strut around the streets of Quetta, Pakistan, with impunity, and float in and out of Afghanistan at will. “Part of this story is about suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices [lEDs], but part of it is a story of safe havens and training camps across the border,” he says.

But while Afghans have a history of staring down invaders—the British and the Russians—for many, the Taliban is not an enemy. The commanders may now be operating from outside Afghanistan, but most Taliban are Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in the region, and they have considerable, maybe even increasing, support inside Afghanistan. But Alexander adamantly points out that the population gave a massive vote of confidence to the government in the presidential election. “People want peace, and know they can only get it through these institutions,” he says. “This chapter in Afghanistan’s brutal, colourful history is different.”

Afghanistan also played a pivotal role in another, larger story. Alexander, who spent six years in Russia—the last three in the No. 2 post at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow— is fascinated by the former Soviet Union. “The defining showdown of the 20th century was the confrontation between the Warsaw Pact and those who favour free markets and democracy,” he says. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and Moscow’s unsuccessful nine-year battle to subdue the country, was part of that. By the time all Soviet troops had been withdrawn in 1989, the U.S.S.R. was two years away from dissolution, a process speeded by the Afghan war’s drain on the economy and popular antipathy toward the conflict. “You can only understand why the Soviet Union is no longer and Russia has arisen on its ruins by understanding the history of Afghanistan,” Alexander says. A stable and democratic Afghanistan would be a fitting final chapter to that saga.

On the streets of the capital, though, stability seems far away. If you were to stop 100 people at the bazaar in Kabul and ask them how they think things are going, 80 per cent would say, “It’s getting worse, the police are corrupt, I don’t trust the government and my life is not getting better despite the

promises made to me.” Alexander says that underlying the pessimism is fear of the Taliban agenda. “The Taliban are about revenge. They never accepted defeat. They’re about drugs; their operations are financed by drug barons. What’s more, their values have been rejected by Afghans and the international community. People don’t want it, but it’s sold to them down the barrel of a gun.”

The fragility of the state was tested on May 29 when Kabul erupted in violence after a terrible traffic accident due to a brake failure on an American military vehicle. Rumours swept through the city that U.S. forces were killing Afghans; people took to the streets, including spoilers, opportunists and criminals who looted stores, trashed NGO offices and burned buildings. The police were cowed into paralysis, while some Afghans said the incident only showed that Karzai wasn’t really in control.

Alexander bristles at any suggestion that the U.S. is running the show. “If you’re implying that this is a puppet state run by Americans, that’s just not true. Karzai gets a lot of advice and extreme lobbying that’s not always wholesome, from groups within the country as well as the international community, but when the cabinet meets or the parliament is in session, the U.S. is not there. It simply can’t work that way in Afghanistan.” But as his car jostles through the chaotic Kabul traffic, he acknowledges that “on the day of the riot, things clearly slipped out of control. There is discontent and civil unrest in Kabul today. The crime problem is bigger than the terrorist one due to corrupt, poorly equipped police, the drug trade and poverty.” It’s a situation exacerbated by the fact that Kabul’s population has exploded from

AT THE AFGHAN DEFENCE MINISTRY, past the intricate array of barriers outside and the soldiers with bayonetted rifles at the ready, Alexander greets Nuristani and comes straight to the point. “Which warlords or jihadists are advising the president against DIAG?”

“I am alone from the Afghan side,” Nuristani tells him. “We are in a quagmire.” He’s pessimistic and explains that the warlords are keeping their armed militias; they call it “strengthening security forces.” Alexander reassures him: “Without you, it would have stopped completely. The dynamic will change. This is the hardest time now.”

Back at the UN compound, he calls for a meeting of his top advisers to thrash out the DIAG crisis. “DIAG is about ending the activities of these groups that collect illegal taxes, smuggle drugs and use extortion on the villagers,” he declares. “They’ll deny it, but we know beyond doubt that they do.” He tells his staff that DIAG is the most popular initiative in the country, and that it must get running again. His team responds with a litany of evidence that underscores the failure of the program. They argue about whether the upcoming summit on DIAG in Tokyo on July 5 ought to be scrapped.

750,000 to three million. There’s high unemployment, not enough housing, and the electricity system is an on-again, off-again nuisance. And Alexander isolates a single factor that overshadows all other issues. “Half the population now is under the age of 15,” he says. “Their hopes and expectations are high, but their disappointment and alienation are acute. They perceive the country to be poorly run by the government or by the international partners.”


But Alexander is decisive. “It would do more harm to cancel than to proceed, so we’ll proceed.” Then he tells a staff member he needs a speech for Tokyo “with soaring rhetoric—the greatest hits in disarmament.”

His advisers want to know that Karzai’s support for DIAG is undiminished. Otherwise, they say, there’s no point in proceeding either with the conference, or the program. After an hour of debate, Alexander summarizes the points. “DIAG is about doing what the people want, which is to get the commanders off their backs. We don’t have the luxury of debating it. Our job is to help implement it.” For now, he says, they’ll move a little more slowly in the provinces where the program has been launched, and wait before launching it in others. The meeting is adjourned. It’s 8 p.m.

Karzai is in fact out of the country this day. He’s in China, attending a meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, a little-known collection of Afghanistan’s neighbours that’s taking on an increasingly important position. Its stated goal is to tighten ties by furthering co-operation in security, energy and regional affairs. Started five years ago as an alliance of China, Russia and four former Soviet republics, the organization has now given observer status to India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan. That’s left Afghanistan virtually surrounded by countries that may have an agenda dissimilar to the U.S. plan for the country.

Alexander soft-pedals any potential threat, and concerns that the Shanghai organization, which includes half of the world’s population, could evolve into an alternative to NATO and the European Union. “The p litical and economic future of this part '


Asia depends on these countries knitting themselves together in a way that reflects a modern economy and globalization through Afghanistan,” he says. He acknowledges that “There are players in the region who are uncomfortable with the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but it isn’t contested in any fundamental way. It’s not just about the U.S.” Of more immediate concern is Karzai’s sudden additions to recent public service appointments. Eighty-six crucial leadership positions were filled on the basis of merit rather than patronage, including the chiefs of police in the southern provinces. But at the last minute, 14 individuals were added to the list who did not meet the merit criteria. One of them, the newly appointed chief of police in Kabul, is Amanullah Gozar, a former mujahedeen muscleman alleged to have committed so many crimes he’ll be in the

upcoming report from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “We were disappointed if not scandalized by the additions to the list,” Alexander says.

Another worry is the Afghan National Army, which is also on his radar. He doesn’t deny rumours of troops looting and confiscating property, of defections and discontent. “It’s a new army,” he says. “It’ll take years of additional training to be able to sustain itself.” For now, Afghan army regulars are dependent on coalition forces for air support, proper transportation and logistics training. Often they take the brunt of the battle. “Afghans are extremely patriotic about their borders and the security of their own territory, but they certainly don’t have the Lav Ills and G-Wagons the Canadian troops move in,” Alexander says. “They’re in pickup trucks, so if they’re ambushed, casualties are high.”

He has strong praise for Canada. “One thing Canada has done particularly well is to make interventions that are time-sensitive.” The electoral process, for example: when people weren’t even talking about when elections would happen, Canada launched voter registration projects. It was the first country to put money into the containment of heavy weapons, and start thinking about how ammunition should be dealt with. “These were very early investments that paid off,” Alexander says.

IT’S THE END of another long day. The UN compound is nearly deserted but for the lamp that still burns in Alexander’s office. Even his two cellphones have stopped ringing.

Asked about human rights in Afghanistan, he leans back in his chair, rubs his forehead with both hands, and says, “This is a tough one.” Abuses were catastrophic during the

Taliban regime. And for women in particular, this is a country in desperate need of reform. Alexander says the single biggest achievement has been the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Under the leadership of Dr. Sima Samar, it demanded, and got, a “transitional justice” process under which a report about past crimes and accountability has been prepared. “It was Chris Alexander, when he was Canadian ambassador, who helped push the government to make our work happen,” Samar says.

But the report has not yet been released, and both Samar and Alexander are irked by its apparent suppression. “Security, justice and accountability need to go together for peace,” Samar says. “Stability here will help security in the whole world. Canada won’t be safe if Afghanistan is not safe.” She’s got an avid supporter in Alexander, but, he cau-

tions: “We may never in our lifetime see Afghans meeting international standards of human rights for women.”

The facts are clear: there will be no rule of law while the drug trafficking networks remain powerful, and the insurgency will not be overcome as long as opium plays such a strong role. Nor will the rural economy recover as long as farmers are, essentially, prisoners of their opium crops. But as Alexander packs his briefcase, he says the challenges can be met. “This is not just a military campaign—it’s the fate of a country that’s at stake. Our objective isn’t to simply invest well-equipped forces under strong leadership into the eye of the storm that is Kandahar. It’s to support a transition from 25 years of war to long-lasting peace. It’s within reach if countries like Canada remain. The consequences of leaving the job unfinished would be catastrophic.” M