KABUL Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan says some of the men who sit in the Afghan parliament are furious that a controversial new law stifling the rights of women was passed without their input.
As Canadians question the human cost of a military mission in a country where rights often seem to be regressing, Ron Hoffman says he is encouraged by the outpouring of frustration he heard during a meeting this week with local politicians in Kabul.
“These were male MPs who said they were upset that they didn't have a chance to debate this law,” said Mr. Hoffman, a career diplomat who took over as Canada's ambassador in Afghanistan last September.
Critics say the law – which President Hamid Karzai ordered reviewed after a torrent of criticism – was passed with unprecedented speed and limited discussion. One female MP likened the process to a secret negotiation.
The final version of the law – which applies to the country's Shia minority – has not been published and it is not yet in force. But draft versions contain articles that say women must have their husband's permission to leave the house, custody of children would automatically be granted to fathers and grandfathers, and women would be required to submit to sex with their husbands every fourth day.
Mr. Hoffman's meeting with the politicians took place a day after a prominent female politician was gunned down in Kandahar – and hours after a woman Canadian trooper was killed by a roadside bomb north of that city.
He said he was impressed with the degree of determination expressed by local Afghans to see that the law is changed and also by the fervent “self-criticisms of the weakness of some of their institutional processes.”
The murder this week of Sitara Achakzai, an Afghan politician and human-rights advocate, as she rode home of a local council meeting in Kandahar, highlights the Taliban commitment to stifle progress in this country, said Mr. Hoffman.
The role that Canada is playing in Afghanistan is critical, said Mr. Hoffman.
“While there are pressures on some key communities, and certainly on women, I certainly feel every day that progress is being made.”
Mr. Hoffman sees an increasing need for the skills and knowledge that Canadians can bring to Afghanistan.
“The reality is that Canada does have a unique role to play and a unique voice to contribute. And we see that playing out here,” said Mr. Hoffman. “We will continue to have a major role to play post-2011 even without a large military presence.”
As the United States makes plans to significantly increase the size of its own diplomatic and civilian contingents, the number of Canadian diplomats has been growing for years and will continue to expand, the ambassador told The Globe and Mail during a wide-ranging interview.
“We are going to be here for generations,” he said. “This country will remain more important to Canada – to Canadian direct interests – in a lot of ways for many, many years.”
When Mr. Hoffman arrived in Kabul as deputy head of the mission in 2007, the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar city was staffed by a handful of people and the embassy in Kabul was half the size it is now. Today there are more than 300 people at the PRT and the embassy is constructing more space to house the more than 100 staff currently assigned to Kabul.
Mr. Hoffman said the relationship with Afghanistan occupies a special spot on Canada's diplomatic agenda.
Much of that interest is driven by security concerns, he said.
The entire region, he said, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and the countries of the former Soviet Union, is extremely dynamic and has the potential for advancing Canadian interests but also for undermining them.
“If this area more widely destabilizes, and that results in human rights abuses, results in deterioration of poverty levels and the quality of life for women and children,” said Mr. Hoffman, “it helps the case for a strengthening global jihadist movement among an extremist minority.”