03/14/2014 10:50 EDT | Updated 05/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Digging trenches to digging mines; the new face of Canada's Afghan experience

KABUL - Canadians could go from digging trenches to helping dig gold and copper mines in Afghanistan if the Harper government has its way.

The country's ambassador to Kabul signalled this week that the moribund Afghan economy will be a principal focus for Canada, which has formally ended its military mission.

The hope is to turn the page on a decade of military involvement and aid handouts in the desperately poor, war-torn nation.

Standards which Canada has long promoted, education, good governance and women's rights, will still be there, with an additional emphasis on business.

"Our diplomatic focus will also be on economic development," said Deborah Lyons, who took over as Canada's first woman ambassador to Afghanistan six months ago.

The approach has the enthusiastic endorsement of Shamial Bantija, Afghanistan's ambassador-designate to Canada and an economic adviser to President Hamid Karzai.

"We see Canada as our closest partner, not in terms of assistance, but the capacities you have that we want to take advantage of," said Bantija. "I should like to see now Canada and Afghanistan get into more economic connections."

The Canadian business community has expertise Afghanistan can use, particularly in mining, he said.

It may seem like a tall order in a country that's in a perpetual state of security lockdown, where roadside bombs and shootings disrupt daily life, civilians die by the thousands each year and foreigners cower in heavily guarded compounds.

Nevertheless, the government is embracing one of the main pillars of long-term, counter-insurgency strategy which says the best way to disarm a guerilla is to give him a job.

And, all of this supposed to take place in country that Prime Minister Stephen Harper once said didn't deserve a “dime” of direct foreign aid money until it cleaned up its official corruption.

Lyons said it's getting there.

"We've got to work with the Afghan government to get the necessary legislation in place, whether it's mining legislation or anti-money laundering laws, to get an environment in place for business to do business," she said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

Reports by the Pentagon and U.S. geological experts suggest Afghanistan could hold up to $1 trillion in mineral reserves, a jaw-dropping estimate that's been lost amid the violence and bloodshed.

While the Canadian military has showcased its training and mentoring of Afghan soldiers and police, Canadian companies have quietly played key roles in advising the Afghan ministry of mines.

Canaccord Financial Inc., of Vancouver, has provided guidance on financing and another B.C. company, SRK Consulting, gets tapped for expertise in geology.

The Afghans have even adopted Canadian mineral reserve reporting standards.

"Afghanistan has got to look at developing its sources of revenues," Lyons said. "That has to happen in the same way Afghanistan is taking responsibility for its security, they too have to be developing forms of business and enterprise that will bring revenue into the government."

The argument sounds good and makes sense, but Afghans have long complained that international development assistance has been calibrated in favour of big, multinational corporations. They swoop into the country to carry out a project, bring their own staff, provide few local jobs beyond the purchase of basic services and funnel the profits back home.

The frustration was on full display at the 2008 donors conference in Paris where Karzai's government demanded more say over how development dollars were spent and was largely ignored.

Bantija said there's a real concern of an economic downturn as international forces withdraw.

Last month, Washington unveiled $300 million in aid initiatives to help cushion the blow from the troop departure, but there are still concerns the country's war economy could slide backwards into greater poverty.

Local businesses in Kabul say they're already feeling the uncertainty.

Merchants in the city's bustling Afghana market say there has been a noticeable decrease in spending by city residents.

Shah Mohammed, vice-president of Ziarmal Maiwand Construction and Engineering Services Co., said his business has dropped by about a third in the last 18 months.

His company builds retaining and security walls and despite the continued need, local companies are holding off spending until the fiscal climate becomes clear.

"People are very concerned," said Mohammed, who lives in a working-class neighbourhood of Kabul, where children play in fields of garbage and merchants scrape by hawking fruit and goods from mobile carts.