A review of Chris Alexander's The Long Way Back: Afghanistan's Quest for Peace.

The story of Afghanistan since 2001 has long been dominated by images of violence and bleak  predictions for the future of the country. In The Long Way Back, Canada’s first resident ambassador to Afghanistan and now a fast-rising MP in the Conservative government, Chris Alexander, makes it clear that the story to date has not been properly told. In this spirit, he offers up a tell-all, behind the scenes account of the struggle to rehabilitate the country. Alexander makes the most convincing case yet that Afghanistan’s long way back to peace, as the books title suggests, is not only possible but a worthy cause.

Despite his current status as a Conservative MP, one clearly marked for a seat on the front bench, Alexander’s book represents neither the policy of the government of Canada nor of the United Nations. In other words, he pulls no punches.

Until now, Canadians have been offered a narrow keyhole view of the back rooms of multilateral diplomacy. Alexander not only opens the door, he invites readers inside for an unvarnished view of all the moral complexities and triumphs of diplomatic brinksmanship. Having lived through six winters in Afghanistan, first as ambassador then as UN deputy special representative, Alexander is the ideal guide with more access to leaders, Afghans and international players than any other Canadian involved in this conflict.

Alexander bears witness to a country celebrating the rapid fall of the Taliban, regime change and the emergence of both the courageous and corrupt in Afghan politics. He provides a stark description of the latter, showing where politics and money trump accountability. In turns, he celebrates and mourns the loss of trusted and true reformists either through forced resignation or assassination. He offers the first honest account of a security situation that has suffered over the years from both glorified rhetoric and, conversely, dire and pessimistic predictions.

He is frank in describing the lack of resources and troops early on, the challenges of delivering basic service and the opportunity for resurgence of the Taliban that this would provide. He tracks with tragic detail the escalation in terror and the difficulty of engaging an enemy that deliberately takes over civilian areas. He describes the emergence of the IED war, which would eventually come to define this conflict and lead to the loss of so many Canadians. At a time when it’s fashionable to hedge your bets over Afghanistan’s future, Alexander shows why Afghanistan still stands a chance for peace and makes the case for what it will really take to get there.

Most notably however, he offers a powerful indictment of Pakistan and its efforts to counter Indian regional dominance by cutting deals with the Taliban. He details the effect this meddling has on Afghanistan’s chance for stability and repeatedly calls Pakistan’s duplicity to account with a level of evidence that will make foreign policy traditionalists cringe. Alexander shows the approach of plausible deniability was not only implausible, but outright ridiculous (an approach exposed to the entire world when Osama Bin Laden was discovered and taken down in Pakistan). He maps out the Taliban’s three main war councils; the Quetta Shura, the Taliban allied Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks, all based in Pakistan. The “golden thread linking them all was the Pakistani ISI,” he writes. Among other nuggets he recites that, when pressured by Washington to arrest Taliban operatives, the ISI picked up innocent Afghan refugees.

“It was obvious to me that the Pakistan Army was going through the motions,” he said. Alexander’s call for Pakistan to be held to account is apparent throughout. Eventually, he concluded that “persuading Pakistan to do the right thing was a political task,” and the political umbrella remains the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA). This is what convinced him to take his next role as deputy head of UNAMA at the end of his tour as ambassador.

Unfortunately for him, he discovered his references to Taliban command and training centres in Pakistani borderlands were removed from versions of reports approved in New York. But others were drawing the same conclusions about Pakistan, and Alexander draws a direct line between the highly controversial drone attacks by the US across the Pakistan border and the levelling off of the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan. As he states plainly earlier on in the book, “If Pakistan wasn’t going to fight the Taliban, the United States and NATO would have to do the job instead.”

Throughout, The Long Way Back celebrates progress and glimmers of hope, at times through the revealing voices of Afghans themselves whom he has known over the years. Alexander suggests that Afghanistan has changed for the better, citing the founding laws of free expression and open media, heavy weapons cantonment and disarmament, and an emerging telecom sector of Afghan economy with 11 million subscribers by 2010. Parliamentarians (some women) are replacing old warlords, and institutions are being built as government officials deliver services on a shoestring. Toward the end of his tour, he concluded the hair trigger security situation had improved following President Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2009. Relations between President Hamid Karzai and partners in general have improved.

Not surprisingly, the question of the border with Pakistan remains and the book’s cri de guerre is for an end to the appeasement of Pakistan. World developments have recently seen him get his way. During a recent visit to Pakistan that was described as a diplomatic offensive, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Pakistan in no uncertain terms to act against the Haqqani network. “For too long extremists have been able to operate here in Pakistan and from Pakistani soil,” she stated.

In sum, The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace offers a first-hand account that will ring true with anyone who has spent time in that beleaguered country and should be trusted by those who haven’t. It details the challenges but also the talent and triumphs that many of us who have spent considerable time on the ground also saw but which have been too often ignored. By being courageous enough to draw back the curtain for better or worse, as a non-silent witness, Alexander has provided us with an important and compelling first draft of history.

Chris Alexander. The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2011.

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