Exclusive Interview With Chris Alexander, Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Posted By May 28, 2015 No Comments

The Mackenzie Institute interviews The Hon. Chris Alexander, the Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and former Ambassador of Afghanistan, on Afghanistan after ISAF. 

1. As someone who was present for a large portion of the War in Afghanistan, how would you describe Canada’s combat role? 

It was central, essential to the mission. Canada deployed first in 2001-2002 to hunt Taliban remnants and protect Kandahar airport. We then returned with a larger force in Kabul to protect the capital, initiate disarmament and ensure heavy weapons were brought under government control (2003-2005).  Then we deployed to southern Afghanistan (2005-2009), with a battle group centered in Kandahar that was responsible for the first major ground engagements in history under NATO command. Finally, the Canadian Armed Forces played the second most important role after the US in standing up and training the Afghan National Army as part of Operation Attention (2009-14). There was combat at every stage. Canadian lives were sacrificed; injuries seen and unseen were many. But our country was the most consistent, capable, un-caveated long-term combat commitment of any country outside of the US itself. Canadian efforts to provide security in the capital and the south were critical to allowing Afghan institutions to strengthen, elections to happen, economic recovery to begin and ultimately to the hand off to Afghan national security forces that took place last year.

2. Do you think the ISAF mission in Afghanistan can be considered a success? 

Yes. Without it the Taliban might well have fought their way back to power in Kabul. Today Afghanistan is no longer a breeding ground for terrorism or a threat to the world.

3. Going forward, do you think that the Afghan security forces are capable of combating the various security threats in the region without international assistance?

Canada and other nations continue to provide significant funding to Afghan National Security Forces – principally to the army and police. The United States and some other countries retain a much reduced military presence on the ground, focussed on training. With major terrorist groups still based in Pakistan and Iran, it is clear that Afghanistan will require international security partnerships and support for years to come.

4. What sort of international assistance is required to ensure Afghanistan does not fall victim to an al-Qaeda resurgence? 

In addition to the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, the principal new threat to Afghanistan is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as supported out of Pakistan. The best protection against all of these groups will continue to be education, strong democratic national institutions, freedom of expression and a vibrant national economy. On the security front, Afghanistan will need capable armed forces, enablers for combat operations, combat mobility, adequate firepower and top-notch intelligence. It will also need international support to end Pakistani state sponsorship of terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Taliban.

5. From a diplomacy perspective, what will Canada’s role be to ensure future peace and prosperity in Afghanistan? 

Canada must remain an important player in a global coalition working to rebuild Afghanistan. Along with Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, United-States, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands and others, we need to remain committed to this in the long term. We simply can’t risk Afghanistan going back through its dark years of poverty, criminality and terrorism. So much energy, investment and even human lives were dedicated in this endeavor. We must continue to discuss with our partners how to help the Afghan people to the best of our capacities. We have to promote peace, security and prosperity while helping Afghanistan establish truly peaceful relations with neighboring countries on every front.

6. Has Canada’s presence in the region affected the number of Afghan immigrants to Canada? 

Afghan immigration to Canada has been fairly stable in the last 10 years. From 2004 to 2013, there has been an average of 2,000 to 3,000 immigrants coming to Canada yearly. Obviously, there has been a good number coming either as resettled refugees or by claiming refugee status inside Canada. From 2009 to 2011, we also had a special program to help Afghans that could have put themselves at risk helping our Canadian Forces. Under this program, it was estimated that around 800 Afghan nationals were able to immigrate to Canada. The contributions of Canadians of Aghan origin are very impressive when it comes to enriching our diversity in Canada.

7. How has Canada worked with Afghanistan to curb the radicalization of young people in the region?

Youth radicalization in Afghan remains a difficult issue to deal with because as long as Talibans, and other groups as barbaric as them, continue to have influence in some part of the countries, there will continue to be powerful bad influences on Afghan youth. That being said, our best way to counter this influence is to provide young Afghans with better opportunities than what Taliban are offering them, which is, quite frankly, not that hard to beat.

There is quite a challenge as Afghan women have one of the highest birthrates in the world with an average of six children. The roadblocks to educating Afghan need to be dealt with effectively. There are thousands of education projects going on a yearly basis, but it is really starting from the ground, meaning we need to train principals, school managers, teachers on top of building infrastructures like walls, libraries and so forth. A lot of schools are community based and it can be a challenge to reach out in more remote areas of Afghanistan.

By offering a brighter future to young Afghans, we are countering a lot of the Taliban propaganda, but we can’t take all this progress for granted as the Talibans want to destroy all this progress and we must not let them.

8. Have gender issues, such as the rights of women, improved in Afghanistan in recent years? 

It certainly improved overall throughout the years as women were able to be involved in political roles, an increasing number are being educated and actions are being taken to protect human rights. However, we must not kid ourselves that barbaric thoughts about women still exists and have significant influence in Afghanistan. It will take more than a generation to really achieve durable progress for women and we have to be vigilant all the time to counter negative influences that are constantly trying to undermine women rights. It will not be an easy path to a durable and permanent protection, but with our allies, we must continue to promote and protect these basic rights that we often take for granted here in Canada.

There will be setbacks and some horrible stories through the years, but we must remain committed to protect these women rights.

9. It appears as though the previous mentality that the Taliban must be destroyed to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future in Afghanistan has subsided, and many are pushing for a functional political relationship with the Taliban going forward. Do you think that making peace with the Taliban is necessary for Afghanistan? 

I honestly do not think that Talibans want peace in any shape or form, and that this approach to making peace in Afghanistan is at loggerheads with what they represent, a barbaric view of human nature. The main impediment to defeating the Taliban is the support they receive from official and unofficial bodies in Pakistan. That being said, it’s important to keep a dialogue with all different groups that can have varied positions on many things. We must always keep an open mind in all discussions, but we must remain firm that basic human rights, for children, women and young girls, must be respected. Along with our world partners, we have a duty to protect, first and foremost, the vast majority of Afghans from barbaric practices that would turn Afghanistan back to conflict.

10. Does the War in Afghanistan make a case for multilateral collective responses to other terrorist crises? For example, combating Boko Haram in Nigeria? 

The situation in Afghanistan is considerably different from what is currently unfolding in Nigeria. While Boko Haram shows a similar level of barbarism, they are mainly operating from Nigeria, a democratic country. As such, it’s important that local countries and neighbors show leadership on this issue mainly. Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Benin are involved in countering this terrorist organization. We have to work with these countries to ensure that the groups do not grow and remain a limited power in the world.

11. What lessons have we learned from our efforts in Afghanistan that can be applied to the current and unfolding situation in Syria and Iraq with ISIL? 

When we look at Afghanistan today, the future looks much brighter than in Iraq and Syria right now. We need to look at what brought Iraq and Syria to such a destructive path for its own people – millions of displaced persons in neighborhood countries. We can certainly see that the vacuum and withdrawal from international influence has opened a space for these types of groups to flourish. Reconstruction and political decision with require significant investments and time, just as it took for Afghanistan. The Western countries efforts will need to be coordinated in the long term to ensure that, once we achieve political solutions to these current conflicts, there is no reverting back to such senseless violence

12. In your opinion, what has changed the most in Afghanistan since your tenure as Canada’s Ambassador there? 

Afghan have begun to take control of their own destinies. This was clear in the last election when two very capable candidates, Abdullah and Ghani, appeared on the last battle, but the end result was a clear victory for President Ghani, who had promised to engage Afghans fully in decision about their future, while improving basic services, reducing corruption and enabling rowth and job creation. President Ghani won the election on merit, after long campaigning and many debates.  He was not thrust upon the country by international partners in a pre-cooked, UN-backed consultation.  So there is more confidence in Afghanistan, especially among young people. There are also stronger institutions across the board. Infrastructure has improved – energy, airport and road networks have been enhanced. Finally, southern Afghanistan is much safer thanks to the US surge, stronger Afghan security forces and better governance.

13. Afghanistan and Pakistan’s internal dynamics have been closely linked for decades. In your opinion, how does the security situation in Pakistan effect Afghanistan, and vice-versa? 

My views on the border problems with Pakistan are well known and unfortunately, this issue is being ignored too often. The fact that Pakistan can be a safe haven’t for Taliban terrorist fleeing and coming back is a problem to the short and long term stability of the region. Until that border can be protected and controlled, the stability and security will continue to be challenged and will remain fragile. Again, to be able to rebuild Afghanistan in the long term, this security issue is the biggest threat to all the progress we made to date. As long as Pakistan is providing protection to the Taliban, it will remain an asymmetric, one way threat – by one country through proxies against another. I will continue to be vocal on the fact that the international community needs to address this to make sure it does not get worse in the future. If we could resolve this, Afghanistan would be able to protect itself better and further undermine the Talibans influence in the region.

14. The production of illegal narcotics in Afghanistan and Pakistan has fueled terrorist organizations there for decades. How important is the international War on Drugs to establishing peace and stability in the region? What needs to be done to more effectively combat this threat?

There is no doubt that the “underground” illegal economy is the main source of terrorism financing. With our Japanese allies, we are funding law-enforcement capacity building to reduce the cultivation, production, trafficking and consumptions of illegal drugs. We have to replace this illegal industry by other agriculture products that can reach regional and international markets. Afghanistan food security is a main source of economic growth and we have to continue to promote initiative that turn people away for illicit drugs. Before the three decades of conflicts, Afghanistan was well renowned for its almonds, pomegranates, pistachios, raisins, and apricots. There is potential to develop in agriculture in a sustainable measure.

15. In your opinion, has the War in Afghanistan, and Canada’s participation in the US-Led coalition against ISIL in Iraq and Syria altered Canada’s international identity in any way? 

Both missions have strengthened our identity. They have reminded us that our freedoms our founded upon sacrifice. They have also moved us to fulfill our international responsibility to prevent terrorist attacks against Canada and other freedom-loving countries. Canada has never stood on the sidelines when our values have been threatened. By preventing a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan and working to degrade ISIS in Iraq, we are ensuring that no terrorist group is able to take control of an entire country, then use it asa platform from which to threaten others.