In 2003, I saw optimism pervading the country. I saw it on the faces of men, women and children. But that is no longer the case. What should Canada learn for future massive-scale aid programs?
Recently, the Washington Post published a lessons-learned report on Afghanistan authored by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, SIGAR. The report, based on 600 interviews with American civilian and military leaders directly involved in the operations in Afghanistan, reveals bleak pictures of an “unwinnable” war, with the U.S. administration deliberately hiding the truth. The report caused a sensation in the international community involved in Afghanistan.
Canada spent $20 billion for the Afghanistan mission: military operations and development assistance (of $2.2 billion). Certainly, Canada’s largest development assistance program in history must address public accountability principles. While David Mulroney, a former deputy minister who oversaw the Canadian operations in Afghanistan, welcomes a comprehensive review of Canada’s involvement, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan dismisses the findings of the SIGAR report. He defends Canada’s military and development record, based on what he witnessed during his time in Afghanistan. He claims that to comprehend the degree of the impact of Canadian presence in Afghanistan, one must be on the ground and see the ups and downs over the years.
I certainly meet this criterion, and my personal experience contradicts the minister’s over-optimistic assessment of progress.
Canada spent $20 billion for the Afghanistan mission: military operations and development assistance (of $2.2 billion). Certainly, Canada’s largest development assistance program in history must address public accountability principles.
In 2003, I saw optimism pervading the country. I saw it on the faces of men, women and children. While my very first impression was that Kabul was the poorest of all Asian capitals I had seen, it was nonetheless vibrant: the Kabuliwallahs in their majestic turbans going about their business; lovely children, with smiling faces, running to the roadside greeting passengers in cars; women bargaining in the street with vendors.
What I see today in my drives in Kabul are certainly not signs of development or improved well-being. Children still line the roadside but childhood has been robbed from their faces. I see fearful eyes of women; and old men in tattered clothes; burka-clad women carrying babies; young and able-bodied unemployed men and school-aged children, begging in the streets. I traverse a war zone marked with checkpoints, sniffing dogs, concrete barriers, steel walls, sandbags, armed guards and armoured vehicles – all signs of declining security in the capital of a country we spent $18 billion to secure.
Contradicting Sajjan’s claims of progress in development, meanwhile, the most burning examples of our failed development projects are: the Dahla Dam, where we spent $10 million for security out of the total cost of $50 million, with little water flowing to Afghan farmlands; the polio vaccination drive, which has not been successful in erasing the title of Kandahar as the world’s polio capital; and the building of 52 schools with $90 million, a large number of them not operational.
We supported pomegranate production as an alternative livelihood to prevent farmers from cultivating poppy. We should have known that no other crop could compete with poppy prices. Afghanistan today is the largest narcotics-producing country in the world. Similarly, programming for women’s development, largely detached from the ground realities from the start, produced all but dismal results. Aid workers question figures on enrolment of children in schools, as meaningful data collection is not possible under the deteriorating security situation; and the absentee rate and dropout numbers, especially of girls, are abysmal. In the health sector, the reduction in infant mortality rate is also questioned. Malnutrition in children under five is reaching dangerous levels.
Undoing the past is not possible but learning from it will help us avoid the mistakes made and save us from losses in similar ventures. Let us move our government to launch an independent comprehensive review of our Afghanistan mission with this purpose.
This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen under the title: Why we still need a review of Canada’s role in Afghanistan