Thank you for your invitation. This is something of a familiar setting for me.
Today I'd like to talk to you about Afghanistan. In doing so, I may say that I read with care the mandate as set out in the motion of November 20, 2007.
First, let me mention that I have been going to Afghanistan regularly since March 2001, when the Taliban was still the government and had control over most of the country. This year, in May, I will be making my tenth trip to Afghanistan. Once there, I venture out into the high central mountains of Bamian, Parvan, Oruzgan, and further south to the provinces of Ghazni and Paktia. In these areas I travel with local people, sleep in their mud brick huts and eat their unvaried but healthy food. As a result of this long and intimate relationship with the people of Afghanistan, I would like to state certain assumptions that have a bearing on your mandate.
First, progress is being made in Afghanistan, although certainly not uniformly across the country.
Secondly, a form of local governance is emerging, although not particularly the one dictated by western thinking.
Three, rebuilding Afghanistan is going to take a long time—militarily, to continue the containment of the militant Taliban in their heartlands of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabol, Paktika, and in other provinces in the northeast and southeast. I may say that not all the Taliban are militant. Among them are people who desire peace and stability in their country, and many would willingly share those views with others. They're a political movement, and like any other political movement, there's real variation in their beliefs.
Fourth, rebuilding Afghanistan politically, economically, and socially may take even longer than it will militarily, but Afghans themselves will be able to meet these challenges if they can count on a good measure of security.
Fifth, in the broad sweep of history, Afghanistan has been around for a long time. It has suffered attacks, defeats, and partial occupation, but it has never been conquered. Even Alexander the Great had flattering comments to make when he transversed it some 2,300 years ago.
Sixth, when I first when to Afghanistan in March 2001 there were very few cars on the streets of Kabul, few men, and even fewer women. Today traffic jams are frequent. Some would call this progress in the materialistic sense. Buildings are now sprouting up in the four major centres of Kabul, Kandahar, Harat, and Mazar. A paved ring road connecting these four centres is well on the way to completion.
Seventh, but what about rural Afghanistan, where 60% of the population lives in their traditional villages? The first time I visited the Shahidan Valley in the western part of Bamian Province, a group of teenagers who had been demobilized from the warlords militias told us very bluntly that what they wanted most was to go to school. We, the NGO Future Generations, replied, “If you build yourselves a school, we'll find you a teacher.” They did, and we did. Education is one of the most sought-after goals in Afghanistan.
Eighth, the Afghan people are hard-working and ingenious. Most villages have no electricity, so it means that once the sun goes down there, mud brick huts are without light or heat. Abdullah Barat, a man I had persuaded to leave his well-paid job here in Ottawa to return to Bamian and work with Future Generations, became the leader in helping to rebuild his valley in Bamian Province.
In cooperation with another NGO, Norwegian Church Aid, we undertook a program of buying, installing, and maintaining solar panels on the roofs of the little mud brick huts. The energy collected in the solar panels is transferred to a battery inside each house, and from there it is connected to a neon rod light in the ceiling. The artificial light immediately transforms the lives of the villagers. Children are able to study in the evenings. Women can do weaving. Men can attend to their many chores. Many tasks are simplified by the use of this battery power.
In addition, wind power and water power are also harnessed to provide additional power and filtered to provide clean drinking water.
One has to ask, how did all this happen? Primarily because the villagers came together under the leadership of Abdullah Barat, an Afghan-Canadian, to discuss how they should proceed. They decided to elect their own local councils or shuras. These shuras meet on a weekly basis, discuss the needs of the village, and then select the priorities. Records are kept of each meeting. This exercise started in one village in the Shahidan Valley. Other villages were impressed and decided to emulate it.
Today all 75 villages in the Shahidan Valley have formed their own local councils. Their next step was to form a valley council or shura, which meets monthly. It is here that local disputes are resolved before they escalate into wider conflict. In the past four years since the shura system has been in place, hundreds of local disputes have been resolved through discussion and compromise. The shura members see this as one of their key accomplishments.
One year ago the capital of Bamian Province, Bamian Town, elected its shura, and for the first time in the history of Afghanistan a woman was elected to head the shura. Four of the 10 members of that shura are women, and this is a breakthrough indeed. Bamian Province is the only one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan to have a woman governor.
To sum up, I think the international effort in Afghanistan is important to Canada, and not just militarily, although I support the work of our Canadian Forces in Kandahar and elsewhere.
Even more, Afghanistan needs long-term development, such as Abdullah Barat and his team of Afghan volunteers are carrying out. The accomplishment of these Bamian people and their belief that they are making a difference contributes greatly to the stability of that province.
This is not to belittle the work that is being done along humanitarian lines by the military and other organizations, but it is not long-term development. To carry that out properly, Canadians have to understand, to gain a better understanding of the complexities of the Afghan people, including the diversity of their religions, their ideologies, and their ethnicities. These are the things that make up their national psyche, and they are at the root of much of the internal discord. It is important to learn from Afghans themselves and about their capabilities. That's what I hope Canada and Canadians will do.
Afghanistan today is still a country caught between two potential futures: a fragile democracy that moves forward slowly or a failed state. Having survived so many obstacles in the past, it has shown its tenacity and courage. Unfortunately, however, for many, the jury is still out.