Although Canada will be soon withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, some Canadians' dedication to the country will remain strong long after the military presence is gone. On the forefront are Chris and Hedvig Alexander, a couple whose long involvement in Afghanistan has given them a unique perspective on the role that Canadians can take to support Afghans in rebuilding their country.
Chris Alexander was Canada’s first resident ambassador in Afghanistan from 2003-2005, and remained in the country until 2009 as Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). A career civil servant, he spent eighteen years in Canada’s foreign service, including as Ministerial Counsellor at the Embassy in Moscow. Born in Toronto, he was educated at McGill and Oxford. He was elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Ajax-Pickering in 2011 and is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence. He recently published The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace.
His partner Hedvig Christine Alexander, meanwhile, is a former army captain who served with the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) and as a UN Military Observer in Abkhazia, Georgia. She worked for the Danish Embassy in Moscow and with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Kabul. While in Afghanistan she established and ran the Peace Dividend Trust, promoting local procurement of goods and services to boost the Afghan economy. Her interest in helping Afghans rebuild their lives led her to serve as the managing director for Turquoise Mountain, an organisation dedicated to reinvigorating traditional craftsmanship, and most recently, to found Jali Designs, which makes the skilled products of Afghan artisans available to an international market. She is a native of Denmark, with degrees from Copenhagen Business School and Yale University.
Both Chris and Hedvig are passionate about Afghanistan, and bring a wealth of experience to their understanding of its current situation. With the NATO Summit being held in Chicago, to determine the future of international involvement in Afghanistan, I asked them for their reflections.
You spent 2003-2009 in Afghanistan, first as Canada’s ambassador, and then as a representative of UNAMA. What are the most important insights you gained about Afghanistan during this time?
First, I started to grasp how vast and rich Afghan history has been, as a funnel for Asian civilizations moving from north to south, and as bridge connecting India and China with Persia and the Mediterranean. It is an astonishing story. The conflict and instability that have raged on and off in Afghanistan now for almost four decades are a direct consequence of the country’s role as a lynchpin at the heart of Asia. Second, I came to know a huge number of smart and talented Afghans.
You have just published A Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace. Why did you feel the need to write this book?
Afghanistan’s story from 9/11 to now had not been properly told. The successes were going unacknowledged; the underlying causes of the conflict misunderstood. For Afghanistan to regain its place among the peaceable countries of the world, we need a shared account of these issues – and agreement of what it will take to finish the job.
The role of Pakistan in stabilising Afghanistan comes up in your book. Its influence has been discussed by Ahmed Rashid, and US policy makers. What are you adding to this?
My book tells the story as lived from Kabul – as well as Kandahar, Herat and other cities affected by the Taliban-led insurgency. The Taliban and those who back it continue to undermine peace and security in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the broader region.