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PRB 07-38E

Afghanistan: Canadian Diplomatic Engagement

Karin Phillips
Political and Social Affairs Division

4 February 2008

pdf PDF (294 kB, 7 pages)



This paper examines the changing role of Canadian diplomacy in the context of the “whole- of-government” approach in Afghanistan. After providing an overview of the relevant historical background, it discusses how diplomacy has been used to achieve Canadian security objectives in Afghanistan. It then outlines how Canada has recently sought to address the problems associated with the implementation of the whole-of-government approach by creating a new Afghanistan Task Force headed by David Mulroney and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), as well as by enhancing diplomatic representation in Afghanistan and abroad. The paper concludes with an examination of the challenges still faced by diplomats, including the security situation, the differing mindsets of Canadian military and development officials, and the coordination of Canadian efforts within the context of obligations to NATO, the Afghan government and the United Nations. The implications of the recently appointed Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan are also discussed.


Canada first established diplomatic relations with Afghanistan in 1968 to coordinate the humanitarian and development work that it had begun to provide in the early 1960s in response to a series of natural disasters in the region. However, these diplomatic ties were severed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, the Canadian government did not re-establish diplomatic ties with any of the regimes that held power during the course of the Afghan civil war, although it still provided some humanitarian assistance. Canada also did not recognize the Taliban regime that came to power in 1996, in view of its internationally recognized human rights abuses.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 against the United States dramatically altered Canada’s relationship with Afghanistan. The al Qaeda terrorist network, located in Afghanistan and protected by the Taliban regime, claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks, precipitating the US-led invasion of the country in October 2001.

After the US-led coalition successfully toppled the Taliban regime, an international conference was held under the auspices of the United Nations in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001. Canada actively participated in the conference, which led to the signing of the Bonn Agreement. The agreement provided for Afghanistan’s transition to democracy through the establishment of an interim administration committed to peaceful coexistence, reconstruction, democratic elections and gender equality. Canada and the international community agreed to support the new interim administration, as well as the Bonn process, by contributing to the establishment of peace and stability in Afghanistan. Canada then formalized its support for the interim government by resuming full diplomatic relations with Afghanistan in January 2002.

Canadian Diplomatic Engagement in Afghanistan

The Whole-of-government Approach

Since 2003, Canada’s increasing diplomatic engagement in Afghanistan has been necessary to facilitate the achievement of its security policy objectives in the country. Although the Taliban were no longer in power, the security situation in Afghanistan remained unstable. The country lacked basic infrastructure as well as the political institutions necessary for governing. Canada and the international community agreed that without a significant international presence within its borders Afghanistan would remain volatile, and that this could result in the Taliban returning to power.(1) Consequently, Canada committed approximately 1,900 soldiers to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which was mandated by the United Nations to provide security in Kabul. The ISAF was led initially on the basis of six-month rotations held by individual coalition members. NATO took over its command in 2003.

However, Canadian policy practitioners believed that security and the reconstruction of Afghanistan could be achieved only through a comprehensive approach that included defence, diplomacy, and development efforts, which came to be known as the “3D” or “whole-of-government” approach.(2) This approach was based on an evolution in thinking within both Canada and the international community regarding the nature of security. Instead of the traditional definition of security as the defence of a state from an external threat, security was now understood as intrinsically linked to development issues.(3)

The linkage of security and development issues began to gain recognition after the end of the Cold War, when conflicts erupting around the globe were seen to be rooted in failed economic, social and political development. Although military intervention could initially suppress conflicts, it was not able to address their underlying causes. Conversely, development efforts were often hindered by a lack of security. During this period, when international forces intervened in these conflicts, the nature of their activity began to shift. Military forces not only conducted combat operations, but also engaged in activities of humanitarian assistance, including the distribution of aid supplies and participation in reconstruction projects.

Canadian intervention in “failed states” such as Afghanistan therefore required a broad-based approach to security that took development issues as well as military efforts into account. Meanwhile, diplomacy was needed to support the efforts of the military as well as those of development workers. Most recently, this approach has been expanded to incorporate the expertise of other government departments and agencies into the Afghanistan mission – hence the term, “whole-of-government.”

The Establishment of a Diplomatic Presence

When Canada renewed its military contribution to Afghanistan in 2003 through participation in ISAF, it also required a diplomatic presence in the country to facilitate and contribute to the stabilization and reconstruction of the region.(4) As the Canadian chief of defence staff said at the time: “There has to be an embassy. I need an embassy to interact with this government. I need an embassy, if we are going to be responsible for security in this emerging state.”(5) The opening of a Canadian embassy in Kabul was therefore justified on the basis of Canadian security interests in the region. In inaugurating the mission, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham stated: “A firm diplomatic presence is important in enabling us to work closely with our Afghan partners, as well as with the resident international community, to ensure that the country doesn’t again become a haven for terrorists.”(6) Though initially modest in its operations, the Canadian Embassy in Kabul now houses approximately 30 staff members.

Diplomacy and Canada’s Security Objectives

This diplomatic presence was to facilitate the achievement of Canadian security objectives in Afghanistan in four ways. First, Canadian diplomats were to work with the Canadian military and aid workers to help establish security in Kabul. According to Canada’s first ambassador to Afghanistan, Christopher Alexander, the role of Canadian diplomats was to establish relationships with major players in Afghanistan to gain their support for security and reconstruction initiatives, such as the disarmament of warlords and government elections.(7)

Second, Canadian diplomats were also involved in initiatives aimed at improving Afghan governance structures, as capable political institutions were also seen by Canada and the international community as necessary to ensure the stability of the Afghan state in the longer term.(8) However, this involved moving beyond traditional modes of diplomatic action. For example, in 2005 Chief of the Defence Staff, General Hillier, who had commanded ISAF forces in Kabul, created the Strategic Advisory Team–Afghanistan (SAT-A) to work directly with Afghan government officials to help develop government programs in diverse areas, including administrative reform, gender equity policy and rural rehabilitation.(9) SAT-A consists of 15 members of the Canadian Forces, who work in consultation with the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan.(10) Composed of civilian and military members, the SAT-A reflects the changing nature of diplomacy. Although diplomats have traditionally taken the role of establishing relationships with foreign governments, intervention in failed states has increasingly involved the military, who forge diplomatic ties while they lend their expertise to the implementation of civilian projects.(11) The role that the military now plays in building ties between states is referred to by analysts as “defence diplomacy.”(12)

Third, aside from working with the military to improve governance structures, Canadian diplomats were also charged with the coordination of Canadian development efforts in line with the whole-of-government approach.(13) This has involved ensuring that Canada’s aid funding and programming objectives coalesce with the overarching security and reconstruction goals of the Canadian military. Furthermore, Canadian diplomats have also coordinated the activities of Canadian aid workers working for a variety of organizations in Kabul, including non-governmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and UN agencies.

Finally, Canadian diplomats were also to work toward maintaining international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Most notably, Canadian Ambassador Christopher Alexander became one of the authors of the Afghanistan Compact, an agreement between the international community and the Government of Afghanistan that established a common framework for cooperation in the areas of security, governance and social and economic development.(14) The compact also committed the international community to supporting these aims until the end of 2010. It was signed by 27 countries, including Canada, during a conference held in London in January 2006.

Diplomatic Initiatives in Kandahar

When Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan extended beyond Kabul to the southern province of Kandahar, Canadian diplomacy was also employed to further Canadian security objectives in that region. In the spring of 2005, Canada agreed to take over a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) from the US-led Operation enduring freedom in the southern province of Kandahar. The goal of the PRT was to extend the authority of the Afghan government by promoting security, reconstruction and improved governance structures.(15) The personnel of the PRT consisted of members of the Canadian Forces, a civilian police contingent provided by the RCMP, and representatives from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The PRT was also to be headed by a Political Director from the DFAIT, who would work in collaboration with the Canadian Embassy in Kabul.

The Political Director of the PRT in Kandahar was to engage activities similar to those of the diplomats in Kabul, working toward improving the security and governance of the province. The Political Director would establish and maintain contacts with local government officials and the elected provincial council, as well as local tribal, religious and opinion leaders to gain support for Afghan-led security and reconstruction efforts.(16) He or she would also provide the Afghan government with advice and analysis regarding the local political situation. Finally, the Political Director would also be responsible for developing and implementing Global Peace and Security Fund projects, focusing on security sector reform, justice reform, political and tribal engagement, and landmine clearance.

The Emergence of Afghanistan as a Foreign Policy Priority:
Implications for Canadian Diplomacy

Although Canada’s increasing diplomatic engagement in Afghanistan has been intrinsically linked to security objectives in the country, it is also beginning to reflect the central role that the Afghan mission now plays in Canadian foreign policy. The election of the current government in February 2006 reinforced the Afghan mission as a main priority of Canada’s international policy agenda. In addition to portraying the Afghan mission as necessary in light of Canadian security interests, humanitarianism and commitment to its NATO allies, the government also saw the mission in Afghanistan as an area in which Canada could demonstrate international leadership. As former Foreign Affairs minister Peter Mackay affirmed in March 2007: “Our foreign policy is clear. It is aimed at restoring Canadian leadership in the world … . Our priorities are to play a leading role in peace and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.”(17)

Diplomatic Appointments

To ensure that Canada could demonstrate its leadership in Afghanistan, several changes were necessary with regard to its diplomatic engagement. First, diplomatic appointments to Afghanistan needed to reflect the priority that the government placed upon the mission.(18) In April 2007, the government appointed senior diplomat Arif Lalani as ambassador to Afghanistan and transformed the head-of-mission position in Kabul into one of Canada’s most senior diplomatic assignments.

Moreover, diplomats appointed to the region needed to have sufficient expertise to ensure that its military and development efforts would be effectively coordinated and that Canadian interests would be well represented. In support of this aim, the government recruited retired diplomat Michel de Salaberry to serve as Senior Civilian Coordinator for the Kandahar region (now called Representative of Canada in Kandahar) and provided him with support staff from DFAIT. This role in effect entails working in a consul-general capacity by coordinating civilian efforts in Kandahar and acting as the Canadian ambassador’s personal representative in the region. De Salaberry was recruited in view of his extensive experience in the Middle East, having held ambassadorships in Iran, Jordan and Egypt.

Engagement with the International Community

Diplomatic engagement with the international community that focused primarily on Afghanistan was also necessary to promote Canadian leadership on the issue. Canadian ambassadors and high commissioners posted in Washington, Tokyo, Delhi, Berlin and London were therefore directed to make Afghanistan central to the diplomatic engagement with their foreign counterparts.(19) For example, Canadian embassies abroad were to organize conferences, working groups and round-table discussions that focused on the mission in Afghanistan. Previously, embassy programming was based primarily on the promotion of Canadian culture abroad.

Multilateral organizations are being used as another means to promote Canadian leadership in Afghanistan. In June 2007, Canada insisted that Afghanistan be the focal point of the Canada–EU Summit, which resulted in a Canada–Europe agreement regarding joint cooperation with respect to police development in Afghanistan.(20) Similarly, in addressing the UN General Assembly on 2 October 2007, Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Bernier proposed that a new high-level UN special envoy be appointed to Afghanistan. For Bernier, the new envoy would reinforce the UN’s mission in Afghanistan, as well as Canada’s ongoing diplomatic, development and military efforts in the country.(21)

Organizational Changes

The Canadian government initiated changes at the bureaucratic level to ensure that Canadian diplomacy was effective at promoting the strategic priority of the Afghanistan mission. In May 2007, the government created a new task force on Afghanistan that was to be led by DFAIT. David Mulroney was appointed Associate Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Interdepartmental Coordinator for Afghanistan to head the Afghanistan task force. As Mulroney was previously serving as Foreign Affairs and Defence Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister in the Privy Council Office, his move to DFAIT signified the importance that the mission now held for the government.(22) In creating the new task force (see Fig. 1), the government was also giving DFAIT the mandate to play the lead role in policy-making with respect to Afghanistan.

Although there was already an Afghanistan task force in existence at DFAIT, the new task force was established to work toward a greater degree of integration between Canada’s development and diplomatic and military efforts in Afghanistan, as well as to develop overarching common policies and objectives for the Canadian mission.(23) In addition to working with CIDA and DND to coordinate Canada’s Afghanistan policies, the role of the task force was to support the work of Canadian diplomats on the ground. This involved managing and streamlining the workload of diplomats, as well as ensuring that their work was in line with Canada’s overall strategic objectives.

Challenges to Canadian Diplomacy in Afghanistan


Several challenges for Canada’s evolving approach to diplomacy in Afghanistan remain. Fundamentally, the volatile security situation continues to prevent Canadian diplomats from engaging in their work. The ongoing battle in southern Afghanistan puts diplomats working in the region at risk of attack by insurgents. This was dramatically evidenced in the case of Glyn Berry, the first Political Director of Canada’s PRT in Kandahar, who was killed one kilometre outside of the PRT in January 2006 by a car bomb. Since then, non-military personnel have largely been confined to secure military bases in Kandahar. Gavin Buchan, the current Political Director of the Kandahar PRT, has said that although he would like to go out every day and talk to people on the street, he is unable to and does not see this as a possibility in the foreseeable future.(24)

Figure 1 - The structure of the new Afghanistan Task Force

The structure of the new Afghanistan Task Force


The lack of security for Canadian diplomats means that they have become severely constrained in their ability to contribute to the Afghan mission in the field. As a result, diplomacy falls to Canadian Forces units such as the Civil–Military Cooperation team (CIMIC), which works toward gaining support for and undertaking reconstruction projects in Kandahar. The dominance of defence diplomacy can also been seen as problematic. Indeed, as Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier has bluntly stated: “Yes, we have 3-D and the military does all of the three Ds.”(25)

Coordinating the Whole-of-government Approach

A second major challenge faced by Canadian diplomats is the coordination of defence, diplomatic and development efforts. One of the main impediments to this coordination is that the organizations involved have differing mindsets.(26) For example, while the Canadian Forces see quick-impact reconstruction projects as most necessary to meet the needs of Afghans, CIDA focuses on longer-term engagement projects, such as initiatives related to governance, whose outcomes are not necessarily visible in the short term. Similarly, CIDA believes that aid projects should be delivered by Afghans to promote local ownership, while the Canadian military wants reconstruction projects to be linked directly to Canada to gain support for the troops fighting in Kandahar. To ensure policy coherence, Canadian diplomats must find a way to overcome the differing viewpoints of CIDA officials and military officers working together in Kandahar and Kabul.

Another factor that impedes diplomats in their efforts to implement the whole-of-government approach on the ground is the variation between reporting arrangements. Although the Canadian ambassador is the official head of mission, military operational groups (such as SAT-A) that undertake civilian diplomatic activities fall under the command structure of the Canadian Forces. They work “in consultation with” the ambassador, but the reporting relationship remains unclear. This is further complicated by the fact that the SAT-A works in support of the Afghan government. Its activities are therefore determined by the Afghan government rather than the Canadian embassy in Kabul.

The picture becomes even more complex when one examines the PRT in Kandahar. While Canadian diplomats and military and development officials work together in the PRT, the PRT falls under the command structure of NATO, which is in charge of the ISAF mission as a whole. This means that the activities and priorities of the PRT are determined by ISAF’s Regional Command’s Steering Committee, which consists of other NATO member countries contributing to the mission. The Political Director can represent and promote Canadian interests in the Regional Command’s Steering Committee, but the director is still subject to the will of the committee members as a whole and therefore does not have a free hand in determining the priorities and activities of the Kandahar PRT.(27) Moreover, they must ensure that the workings of the PRT are line with the overall objectives of the ISAF mission, and not simply with Canadian priorities in relation to defence and development.

Future Outlook

As Afghanistan is expected to remain Canada’s top foreign policy priority for some time, diplomatic engagement in the country is likely to continue beyond 2010, the end date of Canada’s commitment to the Afghanistan Compact. On 12 October 2007, Prime Minister Harper established the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan to evaluate policy options for the future orientation of the Canadian mission.(28) In January 2008, the Independent Panel issued a report recommending that Canada “assert a stronger and more disciplined diplomatic position regarding Afghanistan and the regional players.”(29)

Many of the Panel’s recommendations regarding Canadian diplomacy are in line with the government’s current attempts to enhance its diplomatic initiatives with respect to Afghanistan. First, the report recommended that, in addition to having a full-time task force on Afghanistan, the Prime Minister should develop a comprehensive strategy for Canadian foreign policy in Afghanistan and exercise greater oversight in its coordination and implementation.(30) Second, the report also proposed that Canada press for a comprehensive political-military ISAF strategy, as well improvements to the mission’s organizational structure.(31) The Panel also recommend-ded that Canada take an assertive diplomatic stance with Afghanistan’s neighbours, particularly Pakistan, to reduce the risk of regional instability.(32) The Panel further suggested that Canada advocate for the appointment of a high-level civilian representative of the UN Secretary General to ensure greater coherence in the international civilian and military effort in Afghanistan.

Finally, the Panel proposed that Canada use diplomatic means to press the Afghan government to pursue “some degree of political reconciliation in Afghanistan.”(33) In practice, such reconciliation could potentially mean negotiating with members of the Taliban, among other groups. In fact, in recent months, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has offered the Taliban a place in government in exchange for the negotiation of a ceasefire. The Panel’s final recommendation for Canadian diplomacy could present a challenge to Canadian policy in Afghanistan; in the past, the Canadian government has been firmly opposed to negotiations with the Taliban in view of their willingness to engage in violence and their status as a banned terrorist organization.


  1. Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), “Canada in Afghanistan: Building Bridges in Afghanistan,” Canada World View, Issue 20, Autumn 2003.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Government of Canada, Diplomacy: Canada’s International Policy Statement: A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, 2005.
  4. DFAIT (2003).
  5. Lee Berthiaume, “The Three-D Approach is Here to Stay,” Embassy, Issue 178, 31 October 2007, p. 5.
  6. DFAIT (2003).
  7. Michel Cormier, “Indepth: A World of Difference: Christopher Alexander (Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan),” CBC News Online.
  8. James Fox, “The diplomatic stake: Supporting Sustainable Change,” Vanguard,January 2006.
  9. Government of Canada, “Operation argus.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Andrew Cottey and Anthony Forster, Reshaping Defence Diplomacy: New Roles for Military Cooperation and Assistance. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, p. 5.
  12. Ibid.
  13. DFAIT, “Diplomacy: Our Man in Kabul,” Canada World View, Issue 20, Autumn 2003.
  14. Matthew Fisher, “Diplomat back in Kabul,” The Leader-Post (Regina), 11 February 2006), p. F8.
  15. Department of National Defence, “The Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team Activities.”
  16. Ibid.
  17. DFAIT, “Notes for an Address by the Honourable Peter Mackay, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development,” 20 March 2007.
  18. David Mulroney, interviewed by Robert Parkins and Chris Thatcher, “Common Narrative: Canada’s integrated approach to Afghanistan,” Vanguard, July 2007.
  19. Doug Saunders, “Reckoning the Hidden Harper: How He is Redrawing the Political Map, at Home and Abroad: Stephen’s man in London and the new tough-love diplomacy,” The Globe and Mail, 10 March 2007.
  20. Mulroney interview (2007).
  21. DFAIT, “Notes for an Address by the Honourable Maxime Bernier, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the United Nations General Assembly,” 2 October 2007.
  22. David Mulroney, “Canada in Afghanistan: From Collaboration to Integration ” (PDF, 15 pages), 9 May 2007.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Taylor Owen and Patrick Travers, “Can Canada Reconcile its defence, diplomacy and development objectives in Afghanistan?The Walrus, 11 October 2007.
  25. Berthiaume (2007), p. 2.
  26. Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, Viking Press, Toronto, 2007, pp. 272-3.
  27. Touko Piiparinen, “A Clash of Mindsets? An Insider’s Account of Provincial Reconstruction Teams,” International Peacekeeping, Vol. 14, No. 1, January 2007, p. 152.
  28. Government of Canada, “Prime Minister announces independent advisory panel on Afghan mission,” 12 October 2007.
  29. Canada, Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, Final report, Ottawa, January 2008, p. 37.
  30. Ibid., p. 34.
  31. Ibid., p. 37.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.

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