Part current events, part history and part autobiography, former UN special representative to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander, explains the current situation in this war-torn nation and its hope for the future in The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace.
Alexander’s résumé, especially for someone only in their forties, is remarkable. Alexander joined the Foreign Service in the nineties, eventually becoming Minister Counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Moscow. In 2003, he took the position of Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan. Alexander was offered the job of deputy head of the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) in Afghanistan, which he served from 2005 until 2009. His current job – Member of Parliament for Ajax-Pickering – seems almost like a step down.
It is all of these positions that have given Alexander the expertise and inside knowledge to write at length about Afghanistan’s problems. However, it is all of these positions that are also the reason behind my biggest critique of The Long Way Back – Alexander’s inability to criticize anyone he has worked for.
The point of The Long Way Back is to explain the current situation in Afghanistan, which is undoubtedly complex and multifaceted. Alexander found that, “Afghanistan’s story since 2001 has yet to be properly told,” so he endeavored to better explain the problems that Afghanistan faces. Still, Alexander simplifies Afghanistan’s woes largely to one factor – Pakistan.
Alexander summarizes his point by saying, “the victims of violence over the last decade have lost their lives, either directly or indirectly, because of a misguided Pakistani policy that treats Afghanistan as a mere pawn in an ongoing battle for regional supremacy against India. Conflict will not yield to peace in Afghanistan unless and until this policy is abandoned.”
The critique of Pakistan is not unfounded; the Pakistani government has all too often provided sanctuary for insurgents and support to the Taliban. But in only blaming Pakistan, Alexander removes some legitimacy from The Long Way Back's diagnosis of Afghanistan's real problems. There are other factors at play.
I can only conjecture, but it seems to me that Alexander’s previous jobs and connections have prevented him from making any scathing critiques other than on Pakistan. Alexander is unwilling to say anything negative about Afghan President Hamid Karzai – the man he worked closely with as Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan. Alexander does note that others perceive Karzai to be corrupt and unfit for the job, but he dismisses these notions as ungrounded. He also says nothing negative about UNAMA, which is unsurprising considering his prominent role in that mission. And thanks to Alexander’s current position in the Conservative Party and Canadian government, he certainly makes no ill mention of NATO military action or any Western government. He surprisingly does not even find the Soviet Union’s 1980s war in Afghanistan to be of any real significance to Afghanistan’s situation today.
This is not to suggest that Afghanistan’s problems can be traced more accurately to Karzai or Western countries. But to ignore some of these factors completely is to not do justice to the complexity of Afghanistan’s situation. Pakistan, no matter how immoral, uncooperative and ill intended, is not the lone factor causing Afghanistan’s instability. Considering how much attention Alexander devoted to Afghanistan’s history, he should be well aware of this.
Alexander does not bother to rationalize Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan; rather, he assumes that it is in Canadians’ interests to continue the war. This can be debated, but does not actually detract from the book. One assumption that does detract, however, is the belief that the Taliban will not come back once the military mission in Afghanistan is over. Alexander does not address this crucial point, and simply assumes that the Taliban can be completely wiped out for good. It is far from guaranteed that the Taliban can be permanently eliminated. The Taliban is more about a set of beliefs than a group of people, and ideas cannot be killed with a military invasion. Once NATO troops return home, all of the progress that has been made in Afghanistan is in danger of being reversed as the Taliban will no longer be facing any military opposition.
Moreover, Alexander makes no real distinction between the Taliban and al Qaeda, going so far as to say that the “Taliban brain trust...brought down the Twin Towers.” The Taliban harboured al Qaeda and the two groups have cooperated in the past, but they are not one and the same. It is a misleading premise, and one that does not do justice to the why of Western military engagement in Afghanistan.
Overall, The Long Way Back is well written and full of many fascinating insights into Afghan history that only Alexander would be able to provide. Alexander’s role as ambassador to Afghanistan and deputy head of UNAMA have given readers an insider’s look at the stories and circumstances that have come to shape Afghanistan today.
The book is interesting and timely; however, it falls short in a couple of different respects. First, The Long Way Back has a bit of an identity crisis, as it is part autobiography, part history and part current events. Alexander could have written an excellent autobiography that followed his experiences in such interesting regions of the world. Instead, Alexander focused more on diagnosing Afghanistan’s main problems, which was much too ambitious for a 250-page book. This leads to The Long Way Back’s second main problem, which is that its ultimate diagnosis – Pakistan – is simplistic and ultimately leaves the reader wondering why – if Pakistan is to blame for most of Afghanistan’s instability – Canadian troops are fighting a war inside the Afghan borders. And though it is meant to be hopeful for Afghanistan’s future, the book is ultimately short on real solutions and future prospects for the country.
These criticisms should not dissuade readers from giving The Long Way Back a read. Ultimately, the book is a unique view into a country’s situation that too many of us are uninformed about. Too many of us have also given up on Afghanistan, discouraged by an apparently lack of progress. But Alexander makes note that Afghanistan has changed, and that these changes have “laid the groundwork for functioning institutions and a national economy.” These changes have also “sustained hopes in the face of waves of violence.”