Thursday, July 31, 2014

“I have never felt more welcome in any other part of the world”

Chris Alexander, the United Nations Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, has left after six years in the country. Mr Alexander worked in Kabul from 2003, first as Canadian ambassador, and then as one of two deputies at UNAMA with responsibility for political affairs.

The following is an extract from an interview he did on his last day in Kabul.

I have to say there are mixed feelings about leaving. It’s been a time of suffering for a lot of Afghans. Peace has not come to this country, humanitarian suffering continues, people don’t have enough to eat and just when they have rebuilt their house a flood comes or the Taliban come, girls who’ve gone back to school aren’t able to continue in some parts of this country.

One has to be honest. We haven’t achieved enough. We have much more to do together in this country: Afghans because they will always be in the lead and their international partners.

But at the same time, sometimes many people both Afghans and foreigners forget what the starting point was. They forget how devastated, how isolated Afghanistan was in 2001 when really the very limited Government, repressive Government that it had, disappeared over night and there was nothing, there was no institution to replace it. And so when we started together under the leadership of an interim administration in late 2001 there were no services being delivered, there was no rural development, there was no system of clinics or schools, all of that had to be rebuilt.

And what is remarkable is the extent to which those basic things have been done. They don’t make Afghanistan a rich country, they don’t solve the problem of hunger in this country and they certainly haven’t brought peace. But they are the right things that need to be done as soon as one has the opportunity after the fall of a hostile regime, one that wasn’t willing to do these things. And so I think the international community has focused on the right priorities. What I regret is that the scale of effort wasn’t larger at the beginning; fortunately it’s much larger now and the prospects for the future, if the Government takes the right decisions, if Afghans consider their options seriously in these elections, if they demand accountability from their elected leaders, the future can be bright.

Many say this will be a very difficult and challenging time especially during the upcoming elections. How do you see the coming months?

They will be a time of drama, that’s the same for elections anywhere in the world. It’s an opportunity for people to literally consider their choices with regard to who should be in Government and in constitutionally authorized positions to lead and I think Afghans will take that question seriously. But they want to know from all of the candidates: What are you programmes? What can you deliver? If we vote what are we likely to get in return in terms of security, in terms of better governance (which is a huge priority for Afghans in terms of better services and development)? There will be some debate, there may even been some controversy. But our sense is that the political class here is much more sophisticated even than it was six or seven years ago, the media are very professional and sophisticated, the institutions running the elections, the Independent Election Commission, the Complaints Commission, the Media Commission, even the police and state institutions that are involved, are going to be doing their best to be responsible, to play their roles impartially and without interfering in the substantive debate. I think that will make for a good election and I’m a bit sorry that I will not be here to see it but I think the whole world will be watching as well.

How do you see the future of Afghanistan in the next five to ten years?

Let me answer that question by thinking back to five or six years ago when I arrived. This city was not under the control of the national police, it was under the control of the militia forces. There was no national army and the mujahideen, who had defeated the Taliban, had over ten thousand heavy weapons under their authority. These were the same mujahideen, some of them who had proudly served in the resistance to the Taliban but also took part in the civil war, and as a result there wasn’t a great deal of trust by the population to them. Everyone was grateful to be rid of the Taliban but the situation was fragile.

Today there is an elected president, a more professional Government and cabinet of ministers than we’ve ever seen in the past seven years, some very good national programmes like the National Solidarity Programme, like the basic package of health care, the road building programme that continues to be implemented across this country and disarmament has taken place. The Urdu-i-Milli (the Afghan National Army) is closing in on 100,000 members from all over Afghanistan; well-trained, well-disciplined and people are proud of their army. Think of the difference between the suspicion of six years ago and the pride today.

The police are also making improvements. The Amniat-i-Milli (Afghan National Police) is helping keep many parts of the country safe to discover bombs before they explode. All of that shows how important institutions are to every country and the Afghanistan that I imagine five or ten years from now one is one that will have even stronger Government institutions, a much more thriving private sector one connected to the region by trade, by more and more trading of energy and also by better management of water resources and thirdly it will be an Afghanistan in which civil society has a very central place, this is something we insist on in the United Nations. The media, the school system, universities are all already a sign of that vibrancy of that civil society. The NGO community is also very strong and I think on human rights, even transitional justice, there’s a lot of work ahead for this country; but work that is best done by civil society. And I think the trend lines in all of those areas of Government institutions, private sector, civil society, are all heading in the right direction. The challenge now is to scale up the effort, sustain the effort, not do the same thing that we did last year or the year before, but be creative and ensure that we get the best out of people and out of institutions.

What is your message for the people of Afghanistan and their future?

My message would be to join together in making effective institutions a reality in this country. Many people most Afghans have never lived in an Afghanistan that had a well functioning Government and Afghanistan that was at peace, an Afghanistan that had strong private sector because of all the events of these 30 years. But the Afghanistan we all know from history, from the time of Zahir Shah, from the time of many stages of its history in the past was an Afghanistan that not only had institutions, invented some institutions that were later adopted in many parts of the world. That is the Afghanistan that will be stable and prosperous; one that trusts not only in the instincts of the individual but in the traditions and authority of institutions. Yes, based on elections and national representation, but institutions that are strong enough to be respected by Afghans. It’s very easy to give up on the institution building process, it’s certainly not finished, in some sectors it hasn’t even started. My message would be work with us, the UN certainly believes in this, and work with the international community on a partnership of mutual accountability where Afghans lead but in providing support where the international community has the right to hold Afghans accountable.

I would simply like to add how grateful I am and I know many of my colleagues who’ve had the privilege of working in UNAMA are for all of the friendship and support we’ve had from all of our Afghan partners. I have never felt more welcome in any other part of the world and that’s something which Afghans should be proud of.

Interview by Jamil Danish, UNAMA