KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Canada’s outgoing ambassador to Afghanistan says the insurgency is strong and determined, and deep-rooted challenges lie ahead for the war-torn country and the international troops who have taken on the Taliban.
But Ron Hoffmann said he’s leaving the post in Kabul after two years with optimism about the future of Afghanistan, and about the role Canada has played.
It’s been a “momentous and transformative” time for Canada, he said.
“I leave here feeling really upbeat about our country but also recognize that Afghanistan has challenges ahead,” Hoffmann said in a recent interview, as he prepared to hand over his office in Kabul to new ambassador William Crosbie.
“I think, for Canada, we have a lot to be proud of in terms of our policy.”
Canada has among the largest civilian contingents in Afghanistan, and Hoffmann pointed out that even after the military mission is set to end at the end of 2011, Canada will continue to make a significant contribution to the country.
The diplomat said that since being appointed to the post two years ago, he’s seen first-hand the profound effect of decades of war.
Hoffmann said there’s no doubt that the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated.
But there has been improvement in some regions, including in the capital Kabul. Elsewhere, the overall shortage of international troops has been a major constraint for the NATO effort, he said, adding that the influx of U.S. troops by the end of this year will address that.
In one of his last interviews as Canada’s envoy, Hoffmann said corruption within the Afghan government remains high and everyday Afghans have not seen the progress that they expected after the Taliban were ousted in 2001, and following the first presidential elections in 2004.
Presidential and provincial council elections next month offer a renewed chance, and much of the Canadian and NATO effort is now focused on building infrastructure and governance that will be visible signs of progress for Afghans.
The goal is to put Afghanistan on the road to self-sufficiency and there has been “unprecedented change,” he said.
“I’m confident that Afghans will prevail. They’re people who are resilient and determined and talented.”
For Hoffmann, among his most difficult experiences as head of the Canadian mission have been the phone calls informing him of Canadian losses – 125 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have died since the mission began.
“It never gets easier. It’s gut-wrenching,” he said.
“We’ve been making a real contribution in one of the toughest parts of the country and we’ve made a real sacrifice for that.”
Although the interview preceded a recent incident in which a young girl was accidentally killed by a ricocheting warning shot fired by a Canadian soldier, Hoffmann addressed the issue of civilian casualties.
He said he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had just recently spoken about such incidents, and he said Karzai, who has been highly critical of civilians caught in the crossfire in the past, recognized that there is a revised operation directive for international troops to reduce the likelihood of such accidental deaths.
However, there are sometimes civilians killed in war, which is “always tragic,” Hoffmann said.
As far as the public back home, Hoffmann said he believes support for the Canadian presence in Afghanistan is steady.
“One of my great frustrations here… is that it’s difficult for Canadians to understand a country as complex as Afghanistan is, and so far from Canada,” he said.
The negative headlines coming out of the country add to that, he said.
“I’m not surprised that Canadians are uncertain and conflicted over whether we are making progress.”
Hoffmann has been appointed as ambassador to Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Crosbie is set to arrive next month to take over his duties in Kabul.