Despite no longer making the headlines, the situation in Afghanistan is a lot worse now than it was in August, when the world watched in horror as people fell off a military airplane leaving Kabul Airport.
What should Canada do for Afghanistan? In four words: less talk, more action. George Marshall’s comments in the wake of post-WWII European rehabilitation couldn’t ring more true: “the patient is sinking while the doctors deliberate”.
The good news is our newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly, wants to conduct our international affairs “with humility and audacity”. But the bad news is that our humility might overshadow our audacity, if there is any.
Audacious foreign policy requires the courage to do the right thing, especially when you are the first mover. Our inaction to date is anything but audacious. Still, we have a chance to exhibit true leadership by taking a stance for the sake of the people of Afghanistan. Canadians like me often take offence when we are sidelined on the world stage or treated as the 51st state of our neighbour south of the border. Yet it is times like this that our own inaction risks perpetuating the very perceptions we so despise.
How many glossy reports do we need to see before we take action on Afghanistan? Isn’t it enough that the United Nations Development Programme warned of “near universal poverty” by mid-2022? Nearly half the population (18.8 million people) are already facing acute food insecurity. Save the Children is alerting us to an “unprecedented” food crisis facing 22.8 million people this winter. Some parents are so desperate that they are selling one of their children to feed the rest. Ultimate desperation is in full display when, as recently witnessed by my relatives on the ground, parents leave their children at a local mosque, hoping that someone will take them home and feed them.
I lived through the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and several years of conflict. The majority of my family members and friends are still there. Recent scenes of internally displaced people and evacuees are reminiscent of my own experiences three decades ago, except that the borders were open then. In 1992, my family escaped the conflict on foot and we became refugees, living in a tent in the scorching heat of Pakistan. Starting a new life from scratch was not easy. But it is even harder to see history repeat itself within my lifetime.
How can we help? The Canadian government can turn this challenge into an opportunity by showing real leadership on the world stage and being the first developed country to put politics aside and stand up for the voiceless people of Afghanistan.
More specifically, this means allowing for humanitarian support from Canadian sources to get into Afghanistan as soon as possible. It does not mean granting political recognition or legitimacy to the Taliban. It is about the people and their access to the most basic essentials, such as food, shelter and clothing.
The combination of the brutal winter and extreme poverty is a recipe for an unprecedented human catastrophe about to unfold. In addition, turning our backs to the people of Afghanistan will push more people away from normal livelihoods into illicit activities, violence and extremism. Experience shows that sanctions hurt ordinary people a lot more than those in power.
As for individual Canadians, there are several ways to contribute to the improvement of the situation. First, instead of allowing the actions of a few corrupt rulers or extremist groups to taint our image of the nearly 40 million Afghans, we should develop better understanding and compassion for the people of Afghanistan. The majority of them leave their homes every morning with one goal in mind, just like the rest of humanity, and that is to feed their families.
This article was first published by the The McLeod Group
Second, Canadians could pressure their government representatives to take action in support of the Afghan people. Third and most importantly, they could support local groups and individuals like myself who have been pushed into action to do what makes most sense, given our deep knowledge of the situation, personal experiences and family connections on the ground.
For example, after hearing the news of eight children from the same family starving to death in Kabul last month, I mobilized a group of like-minded members of the Afghan diaspora from around the world to raise awareness and funds. We are using a network of trusted family and friends on the ground to deliver the funds to qualified families as soon as possible. We have already started the process of collecting, transferring and distributing 100% of the money collected to those most at risk of starvation. Canadians can support efforts like this by donating, sharing information or simply raising awareness of the situation in their own circles of friends and family.
Just because the food crisis facing over 20 million people in Afghanistan is not currently in the news does not mean we can ignore the problem. In fact, real leadership requires standing up for issues that others ignore. Once the world starts paying more attention to the situation, it will be too late for Canada to make its mark on the world stage. The time is now and the stage is wide open. We have to rise to the occasion or risk being seen as a follower.