Please, do not abandon us

Afghan president brings message of hope and makes eloquent plea to Canadians

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The Gazette, Monday, September 25, 2006

Even the NDP joined in the standing ovation for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was introduced by Stephen Harper last Friday morning to thunderous applause from all corners of the House.

That wasn't enough to get Jack Layton an official meeting with Karzai, although the Afghans finally gave him a brief private encounter in Montreal on Saturday.

In an interesting grace note, Harper thanked interim Liberal leader Bill Graham, his "colleague and sometimes adversary," for supporting the Afghan mission, which was reprofiled from Kabul to Kandahar under the previous Martin government when Graham was minister of defence. The opposition leader normally gets a courtesy call on a visiting head of government, and while Graham's party is badly divided in opposition over a mission it approved in government, he remains stalwart in support of it and quite scathing over former ministers who now oppose something for which they voted around the cabinet table.

Karzai's three-day visit to Canada was all about bolstering flagging public support for the mission in Afghanistan. The timing of his arrival, on the evening of the same day Harper spoke to the United Nations, was no coincidence. There was the prime minister over lunch hour, making the case that the "UN's mission is Canada's mission." And there he was just five hours later, back at the PM's office in Ottawa for a grip and grab with Karzai.

Karzai got the full treatment - a call on the prime minister, a state dinner at Rideau Hall, an address to a joint session of Parliament and a full-dress news conference with the PM. They even arranged a walk-in shot through a Hall of Honour festooned with Canadian and Afghan flags. This is something the Harper crowd learned from the White House, where the president and his visitor make a grand entrance, entering the East Room down a long carpet past soldiers holding the flags of both countries.

But the centrepiece of the visit was Karzai's address to a joint session at the House of Commons. Churchill stood in that place. And Kennedy. And Reagan. And Mitterrand. It is the greatest honour we can offer a foreign leader. And Karzai, who is clearly a gifted actor, rose to the occasion.

First, an explanation for putting on his trademark hat: "In Afghanistan, in a very respectful place, you wear your hat, so I will wear a hat as a mark of respect." A very nice opening touch.

Then, an expression of gratitude to Canada for its help to his country and sorrow for the loss of Canadian lives there:

"I know my visit comes at a time of sadness for a number of families across Canada who have lost loved ones in my country. I also know it is a time when many Canadians are pondering their country's role in Afghanistan."

Then: "If the greatness of life is measured in deeds done for others, then Canada's sons and daughters who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan stand among the greatest of their generation."

He leads a country left in ruins by the Soviet occupation, torn by decades of civil war, and finally left to the Taliban, which hosted Al-Qa'ida. The reconstruction of a failed state, one of the half- dozen poorest nations on Earth, would be no easy task even if a stable peace is obtained. Karzai must govern amid official corruption, feuding warlords, flourishing poppy fields and the Taliban insurgency, with reinforcements pouring across the border from Pakistan.

Karzai referred to this in eloquently scathing language: "It was in those sanctuaries beyond our borders where they were reorganized, trained, financed and provided with ideological motivation to come into Afghanistan, kill our children, kill our teachers, kill the clergy, destroy mosques full of worshippers, destroy schools, destroy clinics, kill international aid workers, attack international security forces and try to bring us defeat." The Taliban, he said, "would frighten us all into the dark ages."

And yet in a society in which, five years ago, women had no rights, he was able to report that 28 per cent of the members of the Afghan parliament are women; in a country in which girls were not allowed to attend school, about 2 million do now. "To bring a comparison," he said, "during the time of the Taliban only 700,00 children went to school; only boys. Today, over 6 million got to school, over 35 per cent of them girls, from little girls to adult girls."

The essence of his message, which he brought to Montreal on the weekend, was this: We are not abandoning hope, please do not abandon us. No responsible member of the world community could do so.

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