Thank you, and thank you for inviting me to join you today.
I wanted to speak to you about what I see Canada as having accomplished in Afghanistan. I'd like to begin by reminding you that this is a country most Canadians couldn't have found on a map seven years ago, and now we can't get it out of the headlines, we can't get it off the news, and we certainly can't get it away from our tax dollars. It is not surprising, therefore, that a lot of Canadians are starting to ask what the heck we are doing in this quite primitive country half a world away, which seems to be bent on self-destruction.
The simple answer is this: we're helping them to rebuild, as we promised we would in the Bonn Agreement that was signed in 2001, in November; and we're protecting ourselves, as we realize we must, in the traumatized aftermath of 9/11.
I began reporting out of Afghanistan soon after the Taliban took over. They took over in the fall of 1996, and I got there by March 1997. I did that because the Taliban had created a human rights catastrophe for the women and girls. It's through that lens that I've continued to report from that country and follow the fledgling development, the sometimes disastrous setbacks, but, I can say, the flickering hopes for peace.
Beating the Taliban is not the issue here. That's the same as saying you can beat the Mafia. What you can do is push the Taliban back into their caves and keep them there long enough for this government to get on its feet and learn how to govern and train a national army that can take care of their own people. These are not overnight tasks.
What Canada has done has produced some excellent results, by making interventions that have been time-sensitive, for example, in the electoral process. When people weren't even talking about when elections would happen in Afghanistan, Canada had already launched a voter registration project.
Canada was the first country to put money into the containment of heavy weapons and to put thinking into how ammunition should be dealt with.
These were very early investments and they paid off. They're not sexy, they don't make headlines, but they did pay off.
There are 700,000 micro-finance projects in the villages, which CIDA is doing, and they are enormously successful and very popular.
And as you know, it was Canada that stood up and said we'll take Kandahar, the toughest file in the nation.
The other thing is that Canada not only supported but funded to a very great extent the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which has been hailed as the single stunning success story in that country.
But six years of combined effort from 44 countries has not significantly altered the lives of Afghans. Consider that we are investing 1/25th of the military and 1/50th the aid that we put into Bosnia and Kosovo. Those are the issues that are now being reconsidered by NATO, by the UN, and by the international community, including and in particular Canada.
We need to focus on what we know how to do, and Canada knows how to do plenty. What's more, I feel that it's time to call some of the negative notions for what they are. I think Canada can do that.
For example, the fundamentalists who would prefer to see Afghanistan fail—and there are plenty of them—confuse modernity with westernization. Every single thing that's seen to be modern is denounced as western. It's time somebody raised this issue.
Human rights, for example, aren't western or eastern; they're human. But nobody is saying this. It would be easy to dismiss the criticism of the treatment of women in Afghanistan as simply western notions, but it wouldn't be correct. Once again, everything that looks like progress is dismissed as the demon west. That's just nonsense, and it's about time somebody said so.
Two of the critical assessments that were made at the beginning of this intervention turned out to be wrong and are now being addressed.
For example, it was thought that development and reconstruction would be automatic and that small investments would have big payoffs and put the country back on its feet. It didn't happen.
It took a very long time for people to realize that this is not a post-conflict country. This country is war-devastated in ways the international community hasn't seen in 60 years. The infrastructure, the irrigation system, the power lines, agriculture, human capital—everything in Afghanistan was degraded to a shocking degree.
The second challenge was state building, literally bringing Afghans together in one set of institutions that had legitimacy. Indeed, the Bonn process was successful in restoring legitimacy, but it didn't guarantee that the systems would work, and in fact, for the most part they didn't. What happened, as you know, is that Mujahideen leaders took control of the ministries and simply refused to give them up. Remember that the international community was invited in by the government to help. We weren't invited in to make decisions, and we couldn't say, “Fire those three ministers.” We couldn't do that; it was not our role. This is a very tricky file.
Canada is very, very effective in working on governance. They have been working with these ministries, and now at last we're beginning to see reform in the ministries. The old commanders don't have the same access to heavy weapons, and the Afghan National Security Forces now have 140,000 people on their payroll. These kinds of things were not there as recently as 2004.
The other thing I think people in Parliament should know is that from the get-go there's been a very strong network of grassroots women in Canada who've done a great deal about Afghanistan. I feel that, if asked, they would have a great deal to say about which direction the government took on this file. They've been on this file since 1997.
I'll just give you one example. There's a group called Breaking Bread for Women in Afghanistan, and what they do is have potluck suppers. I mean, how Canadian is that? They invite 12 or 14 friends over, and everyone's asked to kick in $75. The goal is to raise $750 on the night, which is enough to pay the salary of one teacher for one year. That program in Canada has taken off like a grass fire. Today, there are 50,000 little girls in school in Afghanistan because of that program. Everybody knows that all of this is about education. It is the key to reform.
The confounding thing for me as a journalist, as I tell these stories over and over, is that Canadians not only know what to do on many of these files, but they know how to do it. One has to wonder, who's holding up the barriers and stopping people from doing what they know would be effective? I firmly believe that if we simply took the people sitting on this side of this one room, we could come up with a way to make sure there was food on the table in the province of Kandahar.
We rush into a country following war, and the first thing we say is, “Whose side are you on? Are you with the Taliban or are you with the government?” That's not what they want to hear. They want to know, “Did you bring dinner? I'm hungry. My kids are cold.” I think we could do that. We could bring basic medical assistance. I know it's complicated. I believe Canadians could do that.
Just in the last couple of months more than 900 Afghans died of the cold. I mean, imagine that. Most of them were kids. But also, 316,000 livestock perished. That's what they eat. That's how they stay alive. But they all died. How hard is it for us—we know how to deal with the bitter cold—to drop tents, blankets, food, animal feed, out of a plane? If you want to win hearts and minds, I don't think that's very complicated.
If you were to stop 100 people in the bazaar in Kabul today and ask them how it's going, 80% would say, “It's getting worse; the police are corrupt; I don't trust the government; my life's not getting better, despite the promises you made to me.” This is a very traumatized country. The majority of the people in Afghanistan today grew up in war. Two million people died in the last 30 years—that's one in ten. Everybody knows someone who died in this war. Overcoming it and healing that process is difficult. The legacy of that trauma cannot be underestimated.
Afghans are very suspicious of each other. They slag each other all the time too. But they're also suspicious of others, and I think we should keep that in mind and base it on some of the trauma they have been through.
But despite all of that, when I was there in January, I can tell you it was the first time I saw progress to an extent that surprised even me. The normally chaotic traffic that Ms. MacDonald was referring to is still chaotic, but it's calmed slightly. The garbage that had been piled up to as high as eight metres is being picked up. This makes a big impression on civil society. I saw other changes. The overflowing, stinking latrines had been dug out, and now they were working. And what was amazing to me was that the streetlights were on—when the power was on, which is pretty hit and miss, but in 11 years of reporting from Afghanistan I'd never seen streetlights.
There are mountains on either side of the city of Kabul that used to be covered in houses, like normal places. Those houses were not only hit with rocket-propelled grenades, but were also overhit from the overkill that comes from civil war and reduced to rubble. And for one frustrating year after another, nothing changed. This time, to my astonishment, the houses have been rebuilt. There are glass windows in those houses, and when the power's on, there's light coming from the windows.
I met one woman who said, “Remember when I used to meet you and was always terrified because I had the entire payroll for my NGO in my purse?” That's how she had to pay people; she had to carry the money around in her purse. She said, “Not any more. The bank has opened, and I have an account and I write cheques to my staff.”
These are very, very important changes for people who've suffered these kinds of abuses, and although not to the same degree, these changes, as Ms. MacDonald can attest to, are going on in Bamian. And this time when I was in Panjshir and the Shomali Plains and Mazar-e-Sharif, I could see those changes there as well.
But there is a cloud of fear that permeates every corner of this land. People are scared to death. They're scared they are going to be caught next to a suicide bomber; that they're going to drive over an IED; that their little girls are going to be harmed on the way to school; that the teachers are going to be beheaded, as they have been; and they're scared to death that the international community is going to abandon them again.
In closing, I would like to remind you, as you know better than I, that you can't do anything without security. You can't run a government, a judiciary, a school, a hospital, you can't do anything. And what we have to remember is that if their security is at stake, so is ours.