Party leaders, members of Parliament, columnists, advocacy groups, public intellectuals and many citizens have asked: "What, if anything, will we do in Afghanistan after 2011?" A common answer is that Canadians need to discuss the question - and there the matter is left, without much ordered discussion at all.
A decision to walk away from an unfinished war, with all its attendant risks to national interests and dispiriting connotations of retreat and forsaken sacrifices, is only slightly less important than was the decision to enter it in the first place. A decision to go to war or to withdraw ought to be the finale, not the beginning, of a detailed analysis of the consequences in either case.
The House of Commons agreement to set 2011 as the deadline to cease combat operations in Afghanistan was merely a political expedient. There is no record of an analysis by any party of the consequences of leaving. Without a comprehensive consequential analysis, 2011 is simply a date pencilled on a calendar, a point in time floating aimlessly in a policy vacuum. Policy is now commanded by this arbitrary date, not the consequences for both Canada and Afghanistan - a state of affairs beyond reason and honour.
Holding a discussion of Canada's future policies in Afghanistan today, in circumstances stymied by the 2011 deadline, may look like a pointless attempt to drive the policy process in reverse. Others might see it as an opportunity to carefully review the Canadian mission, which has evolved significantly since the Commons decided two years ago to walk away from the commitment. But if Canadians wanted to discuss the mission and their country's interests, what should they discuss?
Some might propose an agenda limited to immediate, seemingly uncomplicated "mission adjustments." For instance, should we withdraw only from active combat operations, maintaining a cadre of forces to train Afghan national police and military units? Or should Canada withdraw rapidly all military units, leaving allies and Afghans to carry the burden? In lieu of military operations, should we enhance our humanitarian and governance efforts in the region?
However useful a public discussion around these and other immediate issues might be, its conclusions would be largely irrelevant to Canada's wider national interests. A discussion limited to what are in effect second- or third-order questions risks sidetracking significant first-order public policy questions, many of which extend beyond the day-to-day situation in Afghanistan. What we need is a discussion about the consequences of a 2011 withdrawal for a broader range of national policies that are more or less connected to the Afghanistan commitment.
Consider, for instance, these important policy questions:
Canada-U.S. relations: The maintenance of co-operative relations with the United States is Canada's vital national interest. What are the likely security, defence and economic impacts of withdrawal in 2011?
Canada-NATO relations: Would a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan negatively effect Canada's diplomatic and economic relations with the Atlantic alliance and the European Community generally?
The Taliban and other foes: Will a Canadian withdrawal embolden Taliban leaders and weaken the Afghan government, endangering subsequent humanitarian effort in the country?
The Canadian Forces: No one knows how much the Afghan mission will eventually cost Canada. But government officials do know that staying will cost many more billions, eating into budgets for other policies. Leaving will save something. Is the government actually willing to sacrifice the Afghan commitment (and its defence policy aimed at rebuilding the Canadian Forces) in order to reduce the deficit?
Canada and the UN: Will withdrawal from the UN mission in Afghanistan risk forfeiting our credibility as a leader of the "Responsibility to Protect" concept?
Canada's place at the table: When Afghans eventually (and inevitably) decide to negotiate an accommodation among their country's many factions, does Canada expect to have influence if we have abandoned the country?
Does Canada's commitment to the Afghan people actually matter to Canada's interests or to Canadians' security? Will there be no repercussions if we walk away? If not, one might ask why are we waiting until 2011. But if our commitment does matter and there will be significant risks if we leave, then perhaps the Prime Minister should talk to Canadians about them before we walk out the door.
Douglas Bland is chair of the Defence Studies Program at Queen's University.