Afghan officials lack visas needed for Ottawa conference

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.

Former Afghan allies told to make dangerous journey to Islamabad to get Canadian travel clearance

Afghan opposition leader and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, left, shakes hand with one his followers as former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, right, looks on during a 2011 opposition rally in Kabul. (Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press)

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.

Afghan officials not welcome?

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.

What makes the roadblocks even more curious is that just last week, delegates from perennial pariah states such as Iran and Syria were allowed to attend an international gathering of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Quebec.

Both Baird and Kenney's offices were asked for comment. A Foreign Affairs spokesman referred questions to Immigration, which said it couldn't discuss specific cases because of privacy concerns.

In a statement, the department said the officials could always courier their requests to Pakistan.

"All visa applications from Afghanistan must be processed by the visa office at the High Commission in Islamabad," said the statement, issued late Wednesday.

"In certain cases the application can be submitted in Kabul, and the visa placed in the applicant's passport at the embassy there. However, this is not possible in all cases. It is the applicant's responsibility to transport the application and passport to the visa office. Courier companies are able to provide this service from within Pakistan."

Liberal defence critic John McKay said the notion that an exception couldn't be made in this case was "utterly incredible" and a insult to officials who just a few short years ago "were our important allies."

Afghanistan's ambassador, Barna Karimi, who was also scheduled to speak at the conference, which gets underway Nov. 14, was unavailable to comment.

Detainee concerns remain unresolved

The war was supposed to be about building Afghan institutions and creating a culture of democratic debate, said Walter Dorn, a professor at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.

Dorn said he was surprised to see such indifference to a conference he considers an opportunity for the Conservative government to demonstrate to the Canadian public that those values had taken root.

"After spending billions of dollars — maybe $20 billion all told — and so many lives, national blood and treasure, we have to make sure the endgame in Afghanistan is well run," he said.

"You would want the Canadian government to be able to facilitate a process for such an important meeting."

But the appearance of ex-Afghan ministers and officials could also be construed as an uncomfortable reminder of the war's failures.

Abdullah ran for president against Hamid Karzai in 2009, but abandoned his bid before a runoff vote, citing rampant fraud and accusing his rival of stealing the election. Saleh was in charge of the National Directorate of Security throughout the time the intelligence service was accused of torturing Taliban prisoners.

Saleh in particular is a "key voice" who should be heard, said Dorn.

"If he had something negative to say about the detainee issue, then we also have to be open to that because we have left that issue unresolved."