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Canada's former Afghan envoy suggests Ottawa send diplomats to Taliban-held country

OTTAWA — Two of Canada's former ambassadors to Afghanistan are debating whetherit's time to establish a diplomatic presence in Kabul, and how best to keep tabs onthe Taliban-held country where Canadian troops fought for more than 12 years.
One of Canada's former ambassadors to Afghanistan says it's time for Ottawa to establish a diplomatic presence in the Taliban-held country. A woman begs in the middle of the road on the outskirts of in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, June 16, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Rodrigo Abd

OTTAWA — Two of Canada's former ambassadors to Afghanistan are debating whetherit's time to establish a diplomatic presence in Kabul, and how best to keep tabs onthe Taliban-held country where Canadian troops fought for more than 12 years.

"There are ways for us to be on the ground and to see for ourselves, and to act for ourselves and act directly to help Afghans — without lending direct support to the Taliban," former envoy Arif Lalani said in an interview this week.

"We should be able to decide for ourselves and inform others about what is really going on in Afghanistan. And the degree to which we can't do that ourselves, I don't think it does a service to anyone."

Chris Alexander, a former Conservative immigration minister who also served as Canada's ambassador in Kabul, says on the other hand that giving an inch of recognition to the Taliban would compromise fundamental Canadian values.

"The cost would be too high, in terms of legitimizing an absolutely depraved regime," he said in an interview on Wednesday.

Ottawa recognizes the Taliban as a terrorist organization. The group overthrew a Western-backed government in August 2021, following the retreat of the United States military from its longtime presence in the country.

Since then, the Taliban's government has capped education for girls and drastically restricted the role of women in society, in what many call gender apartheid.

Lalani told the Senate's foreign-affairs committee last month that Canada's adversaries and friends alike currently have diplomatic relations in Kabul, from Russia and China to the European Union and Japan.

"The Taliban seems to have taken hostage an entire society, and our response has been to neither use force nor to use diplomacy," Lalani testified.

"We are at a standstill, and Afghans are suffering. We actually need to take a decision."

Lalani, a distinguished fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, argued Canada should be "looking at creative ways to find assistance to help Afghans" while understanding how countries like China, Russia and Iran are engaging with the Taliban.

A presence there would also give Ottawa a better sense of what women are doing to work around the new restrictions, he said, such as finding employment through private-sector jobs and learning via online courses.

The United Nations has determined that two-thirds of Afghanistan's population need humanitarian aid. The country is beset by an economic decline, malnutrition, global inflation shocks, a teetering health system and natural disasters.

Lalani said Ottawa could better help individual Afghans sustain themselves economically, otherwise "what little economic development is taking place will slide backwards" as governments grapple to respond to multiple humanitarian crises worldwide.

"We have a government in Afghanistan that no one likes, that is doing incredible damage to its own population. But we need to now think about the Afghan people, as opposed to our own sense of outrage," he said.

Still, Alexander questioned whether Canada should "be associated in any way with a terrorist group that took power by violence, that deprives women and girls of their rights and summarily executes members of the previous regime at will."

Alexander noted that more than a dozen security guards were killed in a 2016 suicide bombing outside Canada's embassy in Kabul, and argued the Taliban should not be trusted to ensure the safety of Canadian officials.

He said Canada should instead call out neighbouring Pakistan for decisions that embolden the Taliban, and focus on supporting the exiled network of Afghans who used to run the country.

The Canadian government currently recognizes an Afghan ambassador in Ottawa who predated the Taliban takeover.

The envoy funds an embassy in Canada using fees for paperwork, such as updating Afghan driver's permits that people can then use to seek a provincial licence.

Alexander said Canada should fund the global network of such embassies to elevate their voice around the world, and try to prevent the Taliban from spreading its ideology across Central Asia and inspiring terror attacks in the West.

If Canadians were to establish a presence in Afghanistan, Lalani argued, it could be in service of "specific development programming" that has measured outcomes. Canada could then assess whether the programs, which could include private-sector financing, end up helping Afghans or being undermined by the Taliban.

"The alternative is us sort of standing still from the sidelines and pretending that we're going to do more," he said.

"If we take that position, let's please stop the selfies and hashtags and suggest we're going to do more and we stand with Afghans, because we're not."

University of Ottawa professor Nipa Banerjee told senators last month that talking with the Taliban could help prevent a further backsliding in women's rights. Banerjee has made research trips to Afghanistan numerous times, and said Canada should leverage diplomatic engagement to advance its own goals.

"The Taliban's quest for legitimacy continues to serve as an opportunity to negotiate Taliban support, to promote the quick and effective distribution of immediate humanitarian assistance and the introduction of mid- to longer-term governance reforms, inclusive of women's rights," she said.

"They have started moving a little bit. They are very interested in legitimacy."

Ottawa rejected a similar viewpoint in April, when senior UN officials were mulling "a principled recognition" of the Taliban as leverage to advance women's rights. At the time, the Liberals stressed that women need to be at the table when it comes to any decision-making on the future of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Banerjee said Afghanistan has had relatively fewer instances of unpredictable violence and blatant, widespread corruption since the Taliban takeover.

An affiliate of the so-called Islamic State group still carries out terrorist attacks, and American officials say Taliban officials are diverting an unspecified amount of aid. Yet even while most Afghans experience hunger, poverty and repression, they can generally move around safely.

"Findings from my frequent conversations with Afghans still residing in Afghanistan are that the country feels safer and less violent as fighting has stopped and common crime has been controlled," Banerjee said.

"Overall, the law and order situation has improved."

She added that this makes it somewhat easier to undertake aid projects.

Yet a senior bureaucrat told senators that groups operating on the ground, such as the Aga Khan Foundation, indicate that there is no openness to change among Taliban leaders.

Weldon Epp, the assistant deputy minister overseeing the Indo-Pacific region, called it "a very bleak picture" in Afghanistan.

"We are increasingly concerned that we don't see any signal that the Taliban authorities, particularly those leading from Kandahar, have any intention of responding to any of the measures, or the leverage, or the dialogue they have with certain partners, to moderate their own policies," he said.

"We are not seeing any sign of response to an appeal toward moderation, to partnerships or to meeting the minimum conditions that most international organizations would have, for example, schooling beyond Grade 6 (for girls)."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version erroneously reported that Chris Alexander had been a Conservative foreign affairs minister.