Newspaper article The Canadian Press

High-Level Afghan Officials Bail on Canadian Conference after Visa Hassles

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

High-Level Afghan Officials Bail on Canadian Conference after Visa Hassles

Article excerpt

Afghan officials face conference visa hassles


OTTAWA - Some of Afghanistan's leading political and government officials have pulled out of a major university conference in Ottawa after getting the bureaucratic runaround from Canadian consular authorities.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister who ran unsuccessfully in 2009 against President Hamid Karzai, and Amrullah Saleh, who was head of the country's notorious intelligence service, were both among the scheduled speakers at the conference.

Both men and their staff were told that in order to get a visa to travel to Canada, they'd be required to visit the embassy in neighbouring Islamabad, Pakistan, because the diplomatic post in Kabul does not issue such travel clearance except in special circumstances.

The journey would be perilous -- especially for Saleh, who as a former intelligence chief is prized target for Taliban militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The embassy in Kabul said they can't do anything about it and the only option was for the applicant to travel to Islamabad and apply directly," he wrote the conference organizers on Oct. 26.

"You know for me going to Islamabad, even (if) I wished to, is like committing suicide."

Saleh added that he's "not an asylum seeker."

An application by the country's former interior minister, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, is apparently still pending and has been the subject of pleas to the offices of both Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Appeals from Canada's ambassador in Afghanistan have also apparently fallen on deaf ears.

Canada's former head of development in Afghanistan, Nipa Banerjee, organized the conference and said she's disappointed and frustrated with the Canadian government's apparent intransigence.

The one-day event was billed as an opportunity for Afghans to speak directly to Canadians about Canada's legacy and the future of Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014.

"Telling Amrullah Saleh to go to Islamabad is absolutely crazy," said Banerjee. "Even in Kabul he has to be extremely careful because there's a price on his head by the Taliban."

Some at the university have suggested there is more than bureaucratic ineptitude at work.

They suggest the planned conference is being undermined because the frank assessments of Afghan officials would not be welcome in a country that is trying to put Canada's bloody five-year combat mission behind it.

Banerjee, herself an outspoken critic of the development aspects of the Kandahar mission, said she has "no evidence" of political interference, but said she's on the verge of cancelling the event because of the roadblocks.

Both Abdullah and Saleh have travelled frequently to the U.S. and spoken there with hardly a ripple. The visa kerfuffle makes Canada look foolish, Banerjee said. …

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