Q&A: On ‘selfless’ Gurkha guards, after 14 were killed in Kabul

Former ambassador Chris Alexander on the devotion of Nepali Gurkha guards, after 14 are killed in Afghanistan

Serving Gurkha soldiers on parade during a pageant to celebrate 200 years of Gurkha service to the British Crown in London, Tuesday, June 9, 2015. (Richard Pohle/Pool via AP)

Serving Gurkha soldiers on parade during a pageant to celebrate 200 years of Gurkha service to the British Crown in London, Tuesday, June 9, 2015. (Richard Pohle/Pool via AP)

Canada’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan Chris Alexander says his heart goes out to the families of 14 Nepali Gurkha guards killed in a terrorist attack on Monday. A suicide bomber targeted the bus the contracted guards were in while on their way to work at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul. The Taliban and the Afghan Islamic State have both claimed responsibility for the attack—an attack Prime Minister Trudeau called “appalling and cowardly.”

MORE: Bombing kills 14 Nepalese security guards

Contracting Nepali Gurkha guards—who are known for their selflessness and discipline—is common practice by embassies in this area of the world. Chris Alexander lived in Kabul, Afghanistan for six years—three as Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, and the rest as a Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Alexander also served as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration from 2013 to 2015, before losing his seat in the last federal election. In a statement to Maclean’s, Global Affairs Canada said it takes the safety of its personnel very seriously and “continuously reviews the security of its staff and overseas properties through rigorous risk assessment analysis.”

Maclean’s spoke to Alexander about the process of contracting out security in high-risk areas, like Kabul, and about just how essential the Nepali Gurkha guards are.

Q: Can you describe the process of hiring and contracting out security for the embassy?

A:Well, the main reason why these things are contracted is there is a cost consideration. And the most cost-effective way to keep a mission secure is by getting the best security contractor available to provide that security. Canadian Forces do not normally—do not ever, as far as I know—provide perimeter security for Canadian government facilities abroad. It’s just not part of their mandate.

Q: Is this standard practice for other countries’ embassies as well?

A: Absolutely. Almost everyone in Kabul would have used Nepali Gurkha guards for some purpose or other. And obviously the U.S. has the Marine Corps which has a mandated responsibility for looking after their mission. But most other countries, in fact I can’t think of any besides the United States, most other countries do not have their armed forces engaged in that task, so they contract out. And there are various companies and various ways of organizing this capacity but it’s astonishing how often Nepali Gurkha guards are chosen. It’s not an accident. It’s certainly not due to anything but their merit; they’re constant professionals.

Q: Can you talk a little bit more about the qualities and characteristics of the Gurkha guards?

A: Well, as you perhaps know, they come from a country that has a very proud military tradition, but furnished regiments for the British Indian Army. And indeed for the British regular army. And continue to provide soldiers for the Gurkha regiment—the long and distinguished history of which you can see online. They have kept these military traditions up to date. Not everyone who works in these security companies actually served in the Gurkha regiment, but I would say almost all of them have veterans of that regiment in their extended family and they are known for all the military skills that are hallmarks of a good soldier. But also for an incredibly reliable sense of judgement; for the ability to understand a situation quickly; respond quickly; exercise self-restraint when required, because that’s usually the appropriate response, but take other actions when required as well.

They have earned their prominent position in the security field. Not just in Kabul, not just in Afghanistan, but around the world because they are seen as one of the communities, one of the talent pools, that is just plain best at the job.

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander speaks to the media about Canada's plan to provide faster help for Syrian and Iraqi Refugees wishing to come to Canada during a press conference in Toronto on Saturday, September 19, 2015. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander speaks to the media about Canada’s plan to provide faster help for Syrian and Iraqi Refugees wishing to come to Canada during a press conference in Toronto on Saturday, September 19, 2015. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

Q: Do you have any anecdotes from your time over there where that highly skilled background of these guards was really apparent?

A: I can remember being in Kabul, actually showing some guests a view of Kabul from a hill. And at that particular time—this would have been 2004, 2005—a number of attacks started in Kabul. Gunfire and explosions. And there are a couple of members of the Gurkha regiment up on the same hill as us. And they were off-duty, they were taking a break from their regular routine. And they had no connection to us. I was the Canadian Ambassador, we were with our security detail and they were working for British Forces or ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], I’m not sure which particular unit, probably the British Embassy at that time. But as soon as that happened, they put on their kit, came and stood with us, and started radio communications with everyone in town until we knew what had happened. Both to give us information about what was going on, and to make sure we were safe. I mean, that’s the kind of selflessness.

I can also think of cases in the UN compound, when there was a very large explosion at the World Bank which was almost next door to us, and people had been injured and glass was flying everywhere. And these guys, all of them who were on-duty and the others who were off-duty, were suddenly everywhere in our compound. Because everyone expected those kind of explosions to lead to an attack of the kind we’ve seen all too often since then, with suicide bombers and the shooters coming over walls and so forth. And they were suddenly everywhere putting themselves between us and the source of the danger. And some of them were wearing their pajamas.

Q: Would you have known any of the men that died today in the attack?

A: Quite possibly, but it’s been a lot of years since I was at the Canadian Embassy in an official capacity. But these guys move around and as I say, their extended family—fathers, sons, brothers, nephews, cousins—are all involved. It’s safe to say that any of us who was in Afghanistan for a significant time would have some connection to this group. Anecdotal or otherwise. I was there for six years.

Q: Is any kind of protection given to these guards by Canada?

A: There would be security assessments done of the risk to them; of the risk involved in their movement from wherever they were living to the embassy. As these assessments are done with regard to all of our human assets and physical assets in a place like Afghanistan. And new assessments will have to take account of this tragedy. It’s not for me to comment on how the assessment was done, but let’s agree that this kind of thing is a shock. And it will have to lead to some new ways of doing business that ensure our colleagues who have this important task are never so vulnerable again. Let’s keep in mind though, also, the Taliban, who claim to be negotiating with the Afghan government, are showing an absolutely horrific disregard for human life with attacks like this. I mean, these people are not part of the fight against the Taliban; they have nothing to do with the counterinsurgency. They are protecting diplomatic compounds and an attack like this, while deserving everyone’s condemnation, is absolutely reprehensible. But it shows how low the Taliban have fallen from their already low starting point. They’re targeting civilians, women and children, security guards, and doing it on a huge scale. It’s disgusting.

Q: Do you have anything you want to add?

A: Just to say our hearts go out to the families of these brave guards. They will always be remembered by all of us who served in Afghanistan as absolutely essential to the effort we’ve been making now for a decade and a half. And they are among the most selfless people I’ve ever met, and among the most professional, but that doesn’t make the loss of those lives any easier to take for any of us.

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