Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Winnipeg South.
As was clearly stated in the Speech from the Throne, nowhere is Canada making a difference more clearly than in Afghanistan. We know Canadians want their country to play a world leadership role and that is why Canada joined the United Nations sanctioned mission in Afghanistan.
We are there because we believe Canada should live up to its international responsibilities. We are there because it is the right thing to do. The goals jointly spelled out by the Afghan government and the international community could not be clearer. I am quite sure that none of us here want to jeopardize the progress that has been made by Afghans and their international partners since 2001.
Now is not the time to lose our resolve. Much has been accomplished in the past six years. Afghans have suffered through decade after decade of war, leaving most of their country's infrastructure destroyed. They are looking to the international community to help Afghanistan get back on its feet.
Canada, along with 60 nations and international organizations, is helping Afghanistan to become a stable, democratic and self-sustaining state. Canadians understand that development and security go hand in hand. Without security there can be no humanitarian aid, no reconstruction and no democratic development.
There is no better measure of this progress than the four million Afghan boys and two million girls who can dream of a better future because they now go to school. These children will be the stewards of Afghanistan's long term recovery.
Let us talk about what we all agree on. All members in the House are proud of the progress that Canadians have contributed to in Afghanistan. We are proud of 17,500 community development councils that have been created through the national solidarity program, to which Canada has contributed over $20 million in the past year.
There are over 500 community councils in Kandahar province alone. These make possible development projects that are locally chosen, implemented and owned. Already in Kandahar bridges have been built, roads paved, wells dug and power lines strung. These are essential ingredients in the long term stability and prosperity for the country as a whole.
Then there is the microfinance program. Consider that there are 380,000 participants, of whom about 75% are women. Ten thousand more Afghans gain access to small loans every month to start a small business, to buy livestock or to invest in agriculture. The repayment rate is over 90%. Canada, I am proud to say, is the largest donor to this program, with $56 million in support, and now it is on the verge of self-sufficiency.
The Afghanistan Compact, the joint plan developed by the Afghan national government and over 60 members of the international community in January 2006, guides our engagement. Building on the political and institutional accomplishments of recent years, it lays out detailed benchmarks over 40 areas: in security, in governance, rule of law, human rights and in economic and social development. The whole international community, including Canada, is behind these goals. The Government of Canada is behind these goals and I am sure that every member of the House is, too.
Afghanistan is on a path to peace and prosperity. The international community is determined that nothing will derail the country from this track. That is why there is a 37 nation International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, to which Canada is an important contributor. This international force is there so that the goals of the Afghanistan Compact can be met and so that the Afghan National Army and National Police can be developed to the point where they will be capable of taking over in the future.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. Every member of the House is in favour of peace, but we must recognize that the path to peace will take commitment, determination and patience.
We owe it to diplomatic and development workers and to those who are there as advisors and mentors to inculcate good governance through Afghan institutions and to provide the safe environment they need in which to do their work. It is not just Canadian efforts that are at stake. This is a cooperative endeavour.
Just as Canadians rely on other nations for security in other parts of the country, we are responsible in Kandahar for enabling the work of the United Nations and other agencies. It is a big responsibility and one that we cannot take lightly or contemplate abandoning without carefully weighing the consequences. That is why the Prime Minister has appointed an independent panel on Canada's future role in Afghanistan, which will advise Parliament on options for the mission after the current mandate ends in February 2009.
We firmly believe that the Afghan people deserve a chance to escape the tragic poverty and under-development that has plagued their country for decades. In fact, improving Afghanistan's future is the purpose of our mission. Like Afghans themselves, we believe a more secure, more stable and more prosperous Afghanistan is essential.
Despite strong economic growth in the past few years, it is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Without better education and better health care, it will be very difficult for the Afghan people to get ahead.
Canada and Canadians have much to give and we have a moral obligation to help. Afghanistan is currently the number one recipient of Canadian bilateral aid. Some $1.2 billion worth will be delivered by 2011. That puts us among the top donor nations to Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan compact talks about security, governance and development as the three pillars, and the metaphor is apt. Each pillar is equally essential and the three mutually support each other. The Government of Canada's approach reflects entirely this interdependence. In fact we have actively sought out issues where we can best leverage our resources, where our security efforts will help build capacity in governance, for example, and where our development projects will help ensure a more secure environment.
Let me start by mentioning just one example. We are finishing one of the most important roads in the country, the road from Kandahar to Spin Boldak on the Pakistan border, the shortest route out of Afghanistan to a seaport.
Economic development is key to peace and stability in this border region, as G-8 leaders recently agreed. A new road means better access to markets, to government services, to education and health care, and a better route home for refugees. It means that the Afghan national army and national police will be better able to bring security to this critical region. When we rebuild a road, we also create a path to a brighter future.
As I mentioned before, our strategy is to strengthen Afghanistan and put it on the path to self-sufficiency. Above all, this approach means assistance in the form of planning, training and mentoring.
For the Afghan national army, which is well on track to reaching its goals, Canada has had great results with our operational mentoring and liaison teams. These Canadian military units work directly with the Afghan army, teaching them how to be a professional and effective force to the extent that they are increasingly capable of mounting independent operations, which is, of course, the ultimate goal. This approach is shared by all nations as the best way to make the Afghan national army work. It is worth noting that many nations, including France, Croatia and Poland, have recently announced that they are sending additional training teams to Afghanistan to help speed up the process.
Canadians should be proud of the progress we have already made in Afghanistan. However, because of Afghanistan's unique history of war, instability and underdevelopment, none of our goals can be fulfilled without a security presence. Anything else would be fundamentally inconsistent.
The Canadian Forces mission has been approved by Parliament until February 2009, and our government has made clear to Canadians and our allies that any future military deployments must also be supported by a majority of parliamentarians. As for our development presence in Afghanistan, it will continue until at least 2011.
In the coming session, members will be asked to vote on the future of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. As the Prime Minister has stated, this decision should honour the dedication and sacrifice of Canada's development workers, diplomats and men and women in uniform. It should ensure that progress in Afghanistan is not lost and that our international commitments and reputation are upheld.
As was made clear in the Speech from the Throne, our government does not believe that Canada should simply abandon the people of Afghanistan after February 2009. Canada should build on its accomplishments and shift to accelerate the training of the Afghan army and police so that the Afghan government can defend its own sovereignty. This will not be completed by February 2009, but our government believes this objective should be achievable by 2011, the end of the period covered by the Afghanistan compact. Our government has appointed an independent panel to advise Canadians on how best to proceed, given these considerations.
There will always be those who seek to score short term political points whenever the challenges involved in rebuilding Afghanistan become more evident, whenever we transition from an easier phase to a harder one. For such people it is convenient to cling to the excuse, to which I would say first, the current international effort is completely unlike anything that has ever been attempted before. It is conceived entirely for the good of the country at the behest of a democratic government and fully supported politically, financially and militarily by the international community. The second thing I would say concerns the hundreds of thousands of Afghan women who have received small business loans, and the two million Afghan girls who can now go to school. Could we really look them in the eyes and say, “We are sorry, but having encountered some resistance, we have now decided that your country is hopeless. We have decided instead to return to our comfortable, insulated shells”?
Canadians know that such an attitude would not only be irresponsible, but it would go against the values we hold dear as a nation. Every day we see the difference we are making as Canadian soldiers and civilians work with Afghans to help them build a better society. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that they do not want the same things that we want for our own children: security, education, greater economic opportunity and a better future. These are the goals Canada is helping Afghanistan to attain. That is why we believe our continuing engagement in Afghanistan is both necessary and worthwhile.