Six Winters in Afghanistan and The Long Way Back
Chris Alexander served for 18 years as an international public servant and Canadian foreign-service officer. He was Canada's first ambassador to Afghanistan, and then the UN's deputy special representative to that war-torn country. He returned to Canada in 2009, and is now the Conservative MP for Ajax-Pickering. His book, The Long Way Back: Afghanistan's Quest for Peace, is a clear-eyed, unflinching and insightful insider's account of six years spent in Afghanistan helping to lead the largest UN mission in the world.
Your book begins with a concise but fairly detailed historical and cultural overview of Afghanistan and the region. How important is it to acquire that knowledge when working in Afghanistan , regardless of duties?
I'm not an academic historian but I did study history in university, so I'm biased in a sense. I don't think it's the only thing you need to know, but without it, it's much harder to stay relevant to the issue. In Afghanistan, and I guess this is true in dealing with any part of the world, we've had to overcome views about the country that are very superficial but also deeply ingrained. We have a certain view of Afghanistan that comes from British imperial history, the Russian empire, and the Great Game. You still see it coming through in fiction, and in many of the books that are still being read on Afghanistan.
There's a certain set of assumptions that aren't very relevant at all to the mission that we took on this time. Then we have other forms of parti pris that stem from Afghanistan's role in the Cold War, where it was just seen as a battleground between the Soviet Union and the Mujahidin. The Mujahidin—who were based in Pakistan at that time—were, for the most part, seen as the good guys. And so, we thought that story ended happily and successfully. We went away because the international community had other priorities. We certainly have to be aware of those lessons, and come to terms with the new fact since 2001: we are fighting on the side of an Afghan government that wants to have good relationships with all its neighbours and rebuild institutions.
When we first spoke (in the inaugural edition of Intercultures), you had just arrived in Afghanistan . You told a funny anecdote about presenting your credentials to President Karzai. You were in Afghanistan for over six years—how well did you get to know the man?
He is a leader.
A charismatic leader?
By Afghanistan's standards, where charisma is usually present in abundance, he has it to an unusual degree. At his best, he can give a really stirring speech that reinforces a sense of belonging among all Afghans. And that's not easy to do in a country where there are such great divisions among the population. He has been a rassembleur—he's brought people together more than any other available leader would have been able to, in my view.
He's also the perfect reflection of his country in these difficult times. When the insurgency began in 2006 and 2007, and things started to worsen, some people were Pollyannaish, telling him not to worry, we have this in hand, and understating the gravity of the situation. He became frustrated. And he got contradictory advice—some from his own advisors, and some from outsiders. That made him . . . I think the polite way of putting it is: less coherent. But there were some moments where he was clearly lost on the issues, just as his country was. I have a lot of sympathy for him, but he's certainly not perfect. He has flaws, like any leader, but my respect for him grew steadily over my time there.
"An Afghan's loyalty is absolutely in a category of its own. I've never seen people who were more fiercely loyal to those they consider their guests, and to those they consider to be there for the right reasons."
You write about the Afghan realpolitik, and that to effectively govern a country with such a diverse power base requires relationships and negotiations that under perfect circumstances might not happen.
If you could get everyone that was involved in Afghan politics and the Afghan conflict in one room, things would be done very quickly, but that has never happened—certainly not in the last decade—because some live in the region, others live outside the country. Others are not Afghans but are playing a very important role—sometimes a dangerous and destructive role—in fuelling the conflict.
Let's shift focus a bit and talk about Afghans in general. What are the qualities of Afghans that you most respect?
Again, the caricature that I mentioned earlier is very different from the reality. I think if you talk to most members of the Canadian Forces who've worked with Afghans—with the police, the army, elders in villages and so forth—they would probably agree with this analysis: an Afghan's loyalty is absolutely in a category of its own. I've never seen people who were more fiercely loyal to those they consider their guests, and to those they consider to be there for the right reasons.
Is that based also on a sense of honour?
It is on an honour basis, there's no question. And with that sense of honour goes enormous courtesy. A lot of people wonder why they don't receive as courteous a reception the second time as they got the first time. That's often because they didn't get the etiquette—the ceremony of Afghan culture—right the first time. They didn't let the right person speak first, or pay due respect to the elders. All of those things can put you out of sympathy with your hosts.
I would say, for our part, we Canadians were pretty good at that. But not everyone was, and there was a learning curve over 10 years. So definitely honour, loyalty, physical courage, and courtesy are the main virtues that I really hadn't expected, because it was such a war-torn society.
These virtues clearly go back to the time when so many empires, kingdoms, and courts had their capitals and their leaders in Afghanistan. There's a tradition of this, but what was remarkable to me is that it's still intact. Broken and fraying around the edges, to some extent, but still intact. Clearly, the Taliban have a different set of rules that are xenophobic, to say the least—and violent, as well.
While you were in Afghanistan , you fasted during more than one Ramadan.
And you're not Muslim?
No, I am not.
You describe breaking fast as "cutting across social and cultural barriers, giving meaning to our shared hunger."
You actually get used to it over the course of the month, but by the end you are less effective and more light-headed at the end of the day than you were at the beginning of Ramadan. But when you go to a person's house or office, or a mosque for Iftar (breaking the daily fast), there's just this joy that you experience with all of those who are breaking the fast, no matter who you are. Your priority is just: get a date, or a fork full of rice, into your stomach. The relief is palpable, but you're also observing a tradition that has deep roots—and that shows a commitment to morality, to being willing to sacrifice for the sake of something higher.
What kind of reaction did you get from Afghans?
For the most part, people were really open to it and excited, you know. And they understood that even for a non-Muslim, there was a certain attraction and merit to doing it.
"I wasn't fighting pitched battles, but you always felt that they were close, and you felt that vulnerability."
There's a short passage in your book where you describe the faqir who would visit you on Friday mornings at home. You wrote that, "He was the face of the Kabul that I lived and loved." Why is that?
The faqir is a beggar. He would literally sing for a few Afghanis. He would arrive on Friday morning, sometimes earlier than most people awoke (since it was the one day off a week). But Kabul is quiet at that time, and his voice was absolutely hauntingly beautiful.
I couldn't understand what he was singing. I don't even think the Afghans did, because he was from Mazar-i-Sharif and these are very old songs. But they were romantic songs of longing and they struck me as very appropriate for the country. We would sort of have conversations, and we'd chat away from the guards so he could really tell me what was going on. But he dressed like Joseph in The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—an absolute blur of clothing. I never saw anyone quite like him, but all the Afghans said there used to be more faqirs—part mendicant, and part holy man.
What would you describe as your biggest challenge on a personal level over the six winters spent there?
When it gets cold in Kabul and you don't have enough wood or haven't fired up your stove, it's very cold inside. If you're deprived of warmth, you lose energy, you lose time, you lose motivation. And we were living relatively privileged lives. When we would go to villages or to neighbours, you saw how most people lived.
Honestly, though, I would say the biggest challenge was to get a large group of people to understand what was really happening—because actually, if we all agree on a certain account of what's driving the Afghan conflict, the solutions aren't that hard to see. We met with hundreds of delegations and I think that we had some impact, but I always felt it wasn't enough, that we needed a bigger platform from which to tell the story. There are dozens of people who could write books as true to life and as insightful—if mine is, at all, insightful. I have had the good fortune to have the time to write it. There are other Canadian books coming out, obviously, but unlike most of these other people, I was there for six years.
"We need to invest in learning languages and in the cultural and historical understanding that must underpin good strategy."
How hard is it coming back to Canada ? I'm thinking about, you know, in terms of re-adapting to your home life, culture, society?
It's hard at the beginning. I mean, having a baby just after coming back—you're still focused on different things. But I can see in myself a lot of stress that doesn't come out at first. I can relate to those diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I wasn't fighting pitched battles, but you always felt that they were close, and you felt that vulnerability. We all saw attacks and the results of them, and we carry that with us. We all took life very seriously—everything was urgent. Coming back here, you're sort of overwhelmed by just how comfortable our lives in Canada are, by comparison.
Do you miss the "rush" part of that life, for lack of a better term?
Adrenalin, yes. But let's just say politics is ample compensation!
I do miss Afghanistan. We have many friends there, but it was absolutely right to leave when we did. I couldn't imagine, in the circumstances, staying much longer.
Now, all politics are local whether you're in Afghanistan or Ajax-Pickering.
How has your experience in Afghanistan helped you become a better MP? Is it too early to tell?
Well, you look at a riding like mine and many in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) or elsewhere in Canada—diversity is our middle name. My experience in Afghanistan, and also in other countries, was in many ways the ideal preparation, because I feel very comfortable in a mosque or in the Hindu temple up the street, or in any of the churches that are there, from Coptic to Lebanese Orthodox to the Anglican Church of Canada. It gives you the habit of reaching out across the cultural boundaries and taking a real interest in where people are coming from and how that affects their experience with Canada.
We have many Afghans in Ajax—a growing Afghan population. I was just astonished by how interested they were in my wife, my daughter, and me, just because we have lived in their country—and more recently than they had, in many cases. They were excited and many of them took their first steps into political participation and volunteering because of that. So, it's nice to be able to translate, as you say, years of working on the local politics of Afghanistan to a reinvigoration of local politics in a corner of Canada.
What advice would you have for your former colleagues in Canada's diplomatic, development and defence organizations? What would you tell them so they can be more effective when they're "in-country"?
I think our people do a first-class job in all of those 3D departments, and in other departments. I think we've learned a lot over the past decade, but my message would be simple: we need to invest in learning languages and in the cultural and historical understanding that must underpin good strategy—and that's not going to happen overnight.