Published December 24, 2008

 Everyone has to take responsibility in Afghanistan.

Afghans seek our assistance to protect themselves.

Many see themselves as Border People.

Border issues are being negotiated between Afghani and Pakistani authorities with the help of Canadian officials.

The Pakistan Post’s exclusive chit chat with Ms. Karen Ross, a Former Canadian Deputy Political Director who has returned from Afghanistan

 The best part of being a journalist is to know a lot of people and to learn a great deal more from them. Some of them are remarkable enough to inspire you. I came across one such brilliant woman last week when Ms. Karen Ross, a Deputy Political Director at Canadian Foreign Office, visited the Pakistan Post’s Mississauga office. Rarely do we come across examples where people like Ms. Ross would undertake a mission for the welfare of people under the most unlivable conditions. She is a role model unto herself, someone who believes in Canadian mission - Canadian humanitarian mission particularly - in Afghanistan.

She had worked there for 13 months at a time when Afghanistan has been the most unsafe place to work at. It is well documented that women in Afghanistan are subjected to enormous societal pressures most of which are not Islamic at all. At a place where limbs of women are chopped just because they wear socks given by Red Cross to keep themselves warm, it is even harder for a woman to persuade herself to serve. Only a strong faith or belief can have someone live in such dangerous circumstances.

Ms. Karen Ross joined the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 2001, serving in the South Asia Division, originally as the Bangladesh desk officer and then as the Afghanistan and Pakistan desk officer. She worked in Kandhar city with 300 people who have been involved in humanitarian and reconstruction work building Afghan civilian police, border police.  Correctional services Canada has mentoring and training program for guards.  Ms. Ross was responsible for ensuring that international standards are met for Canadian transferred detainees; she engaged with the tribal elders, councilors, mayors, provincial and Afghan ministry officials so that several affairs run smoothly.  Canadian government is leading the initiative to check paper work of people who are moving between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are sharing intelligence, documents and training, and at times this could be the most dangerous job to do.

 

I know that many Pakistani diplomats wanted to go to Afghanistan, not to save or to protect but because it paid handsome money. And while men are away working in Kabul, the family would enjoy relatively good living. Islam teaches service to fellow human beings, but not often enough do we hear about volunteer services by Muslims.

While it is up to the history to judge whether the international forces should or should not have come to Afghanistan, it is people like Ms. Ross -  who have conscience and courage  - that would leave a mark in the history. Money cannot necessarily be such a strong incentive for people to leave their homes and live at a place that is not compatible with your upbringing. And Ms. Ross is content with services she offered to Afghan people even when the sentiment that gets highlighted is that Afghani people want foreigners to leave their county.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s most senior commander in Afghanistan has said that the public should not expect a "decisive military victory” in Afghanistan. General James Jones, the National Security Advisor of President-elect Obama has given his grim assessment “Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.’’ These statements from top US and British officials’ leaves one to conclude that war on terror is “unwinnable. However Ms. Karen Ross told the Pakistan Post “If we had secret solution, if there’s a magic recipe of winning Afghanistan, we would have used it a long time ago.” She believes that the Canadian government has been very realistic about some of the challenges that Canadian and other international forces face in Afghanistan. She reiterates what has been said before that the security situation in Afghanistan has been worse in 2007 and that it further deteriorated in 2008.

The US news reports and senior government officials attribute the shoddier Afghan security to insurgents who cross border to Pakistan after launching attacks in Afghanistan. Ms. Ross does not talk about blaming Pakistan or any other country for these insurgent attacks.

She says it is “not about blame so much as it is about taking responsibility. Everyone has to take certain amount of responsibility. Both the governments as well as the international governments are engaged.” What needs to be done is to have Afghan, Pakistani and NATO authorities to sit together. General Thmoson, the Head of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Saifullah from Afghanistan and their counterpart from Pakistan hold quarterly meetings to discuss the situation at border and how to improve it. These quarterly dialogues are complemented by diplomacy and field work. 

She noted that when the trucks come from Pakistan, they are well organized and in order, however once they cross the border over to Afghanistan, it is all chaotic.

How effective is the border control then?

Ms. Ross says, people “do not show any documentation” at Pak-Afghan border. At 5 in the evening when the border between the Pakistan and Afghanistan closes, there is a huge flow of people returning from the Afghani side to Pakistan. Ms. Ross’ friend, the head of Afghanistan Immigration office, asked “how am I gonna stop this flow..that’s at  official border crossing much less through desert areas or some other border areas.” At Spin Boldak, people have been living here for centuries whereby they lived in Pakistan and worked on Afghani side. Ms. Ross admits that some of these people do not even see themselves as Afghani or Pakistani, they see themselves as “Border people.”

Is it fair then to impose a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan where people show passports or other documents to move back and forth?

Ms. Ross’s response is “That’s a huge challenges, a lot of things haven’t been put in place just because of that.” There is a realization at international level that in doing so there could be huge anger and uproar from people of the region. And there is a danger of “a very significant incident.”

The Canadian government is helping Pakistan and Afghanistan to reach an agreement that would be beneficial for the people of both countries. Canada is also looking to provide any resources that might be needed by the two governments to fulfill their obligations. Ms. Ross said that negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been held in Dubai, which is considered, a neutral turf, and then in Islamabad and Kabul on this issue. She believes that there’s ‘very very positive” progress being made on this issue.

From Ms. Ross’ conversation it appeared that the Canadian government is working hard to build its civilian presence in Afghanistan. This is apparent from having one political officer in 2007 to five when Ms Ross returned this summer to having more civilian officers now. The Manley Report suggested the Canadian government increase civilian presence from 2 to over 50 to over 100 which is more than any other international government has in Afghanistan. The Canadian military and diplomatic missions’ work closely to have one shared Canadian vision in Afghanistan. She says the Canadian mission in Afghanistan is “the most integrated counterinsurgency mission” among other countries. The number of civilians has grown to enhance engagements with all level of Afghani government as well as with political and cultural hierarchy that includes tribal elders and jirga. It seems that the Canadian government has taken precedence over any other country of the world by increasing the number of civilians in Afghanistan.

In 2006 the Canadian forces launched Operation Medusa when Kandahar came under attack by the Taliban. Once the operation ended successfully, Afghans opened us their houses to welcome and to feed and to celebrate Canadian armed forces. This also led to the possibilities of development and governance for the Canadian officials to work for the welfare of Afghani people. Ms. Ross spent 60 per cent of time out in the field.

Is it safe for Ms. Ross and other development and civilian workers to work in the field?

Ms. Ross answered almost instantly. “No, it’s not. Of course it’s not. NGOs could not work without security guards.  You take risks every time you go out. But is it better to do that or to do nothing.”

 

As a woman Ms. Ross did not dress in traditional Afghani dress “because it was black. And (it was) very hot. It was more combustible and if you were in an incident and it caught fire, you wouldn’t survive very well. I wore khaki pants and long shirts..more like a shalwar kameez and wear the vest, the helmet, the ballistic glasses, gloves whenever I was out walking around.”

Not knowing the language is another challenge as some of the meaning of interaction could be lost in translation. Living in Afghanistan and Indonesia has given her understanding of vocabulary to the extent that she understood some of Pashtu.

However, being a woman was not an obstruction to her work as one would imagine in Afghanistan and as she was told be some of her Afghan friends. She told us an incident where she had gone out to see a tribe which was frustrated with the Afghani government on a contentious issue. The elders of the groups wanted to know the Canadians’ role in the area and where they patrolled. Ms. Ross found dealing with Afghani elders “better than working in most developed countries.”  She believes they are pragmatic and want to interact with the one who makes a decision, who there main point of contact is and the in charge regardless of whether you were a women or young. Ms. Ross had gone with seasoned military officials who were “intimidating,” but found that Afghanis wanted to communicate with her just because she was in charge.

So what is the reaction of Afghans when there are Drone strikes?

Ms. Ross says “It really depends..We set up Joint District Coordination centers (at Panjawi) with emergency phone numbers.” When there is emergency, the “line starts ringing off the hook” so that people outreach to us seeking our protection.” Ms. Ross says Panjaawi is Mullah Omar’s home turf and that it is “highly unlikely”  for Osama bin Laden to be here. She says the only time Afghans are angry at us are when “insurgents slipped through our fingers” asking us that there should be more forces out there to protect them.

Ms. Ross says that the teachers teaching at Afghan school, doctors working at hospitals are all there in the hope that Afghanistan could be peaceful. She reminds us that 516 Canadian soldiers lost their lives in Korean War, but eventually Korea has became a prosperous country with wonderful ties with Canada. In the dire security situation, the polio eradication mission continues because Canadian and international forces were there to support Afghani people.  She noted that Afghans have registered to vote in greater numbers than expected partially because of Canadian efforts in Afghanistan. She says that Afghans “continue to surprise you in terms of what they can deliver because of their resilience,” they are “hungry” for peaceful and prosperous life.

Shouldn’t international forces leave Afghanistan?

Ms. Ross says that “I believe in this mission” and every development and NGO worker believes in this. “Eventually” international forces will have to leave Afghanistan; human rights organization has said that in 2002. She says Canadian presence is “not about us but about Afghan people,” and we have to be there to help.