May 3, 2019


Event Description: On 27 April 2019, the UBC Greater Central Asian Initiative in partnership with the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs held a public speaking event exactly 40 years after Soviet military forces invaded Afghanistan in a geopolitical maneuver that precipitated a disastrous civil war. The mini-conference featured a diverse group of speakers who reflected on the challenge of rebuilding Afghanistan, an impoverished but a strategically important country in Central Asia. A panel of young scholars also weighed in on the discussion using different theoretical and policy perspectives.           

Background: Established as a branch of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research (IAR) in June 2016, the Greater Central Asian Initiative (GCAI) provides a forum for enhancing public understanding of regional geostrategy, geopolitics, geo-economics, and local culture. It also aims to foster community engagement, raising public awareness, and cultivating ties among students, professionals and experts.

Host: UBC Institute of Asian Research; UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs

VSIR Thinking Points:

  • Afghanistan’s security situation remains fragile despite a two decade-long international effort to stabilize the country. Although multi-lateral initiatives (ie., Afghanistan Compact, Bonn Agreement, London Conference on Afghanistan) provided a temporary respite from the worst excesses of civil war, the pendulum has shifted in the other direction. According to the UNHCR, Afghanistan is the world’s second largest source of refugees (2.5 million). The return of 1.7 million Afghan refugees from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan (2016-17) has created additional burdens for the country’s weak infrastructure. Meanwhile, a negotiated political settlement involving all the warring factions is doubtful – the country’s political leadership remains divided while insurgent groups (ie. Taliban) and terrorist groups (ie. Islamic State, Al Qaeda) are likely to resist pacification attempts by the central government in Kabul. Like Canada, Afghanistan is scheduled to hold national elections in Fall 2019.
  • Since 2014, Afghanistan’s National Unity Government has prioritized its diplomatic relationship with China as it continues to explore ways of improving its complex cultural and security entanglements with Pakistan (ie., the first country to recognize the Taliban government from 1996 to 2001). This is a pragmatic response to the security vacuum created by the recent draw-down of international security forces. Strengthened bilateral relations with China could improve Afghanistan’s prospect of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and improve its leverage with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Afghanistan is also supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In addition to major infrastructure investments (ie., highways, railway agricultural, communications, irrigation, electricity), the ADB also works with civil society organizations to facilitate public-private investments with a view to improving the business environment.    
  • Canada’s security mission in Afghanistan ended in March 2014, but it ranks among the 10 largest single-country donors providing humanitarian assistance. Domestically, Canada has other “soft-power” levers that it can use in trying to scale-up Afghanistan’s human and social capital. Bold and innovative thinking, especially around education, leadership development, and capacity development (ie., UBC’s Knowledge Partnership Program) may be helpful in training the country’s future business and political leaders. Policy think-tanks are another useful source of theoretical and practical knowledge on how to design holistic and context-specific governance initiatives. Finally, civil society organizations (ie., Partnership-Afghanistan Canada) can support the Canadian federal government by creating an enabling environment as watchdogs, community-based knowledge brokers, and human rights advocates.

Concluding Remarks:

Canada can still contribute to the Afghan-owned reconciliation process even if it does not have a leadership position in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China) or the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process. The international rules of engagement may have changed but the importance of strengthening Afghanistan’s fragile security has not diminished. Because Afghanistan remains a vital land-bridge to the rest of Asia, Canada should be prepared to engage with the democratically elected leadership on both tactical and strategic levels.  

Agenda and Speakers:

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