Now is not the time for Canadians to lose our heads over Afghanistan. Mindless panic on the one hand, and bubbling righteous indignation on the other, are bad guides to foreign policy. Yes, the strategic situation has deteriorated, and yes, the proposed Afghan marriage law is regressive. Neither justifies cutting and running.
We have a way to go to win this conflict, but we haven't yet lost it. And this just happens to be a war where the better part of winning it is just not to lose it. We are not, and never have been, in Afghanistan to establish a full-fledged liberal democracy there. That may be a distant goal, but it can't be our proximate one. And while it may be our secondary aim, it's not our primary one. Nor, however, can we abandon it without compromising that primary one.
We and the rest of the U.S.-led and UN-sanctioned coalition in Afghanistan, are there for one reason: Having chased out the Taliban in 2002 and al-Qaeda with them, we aim to keep them out. In this we aim at our own benefit; in achieving it, however, we also benefit the Afghans. Failure would be disastrous all around, for it would permit the Islamic terrorist conspiracy to reverse its single most decisive defeat since 9/11. By thus undoing the crucial element in its own marginalization, it would marginalize the United States and its allies. The Islamist canard of the West as a paper tiger would have received a stunning vindication.
The Obama administration recognizes this as a war it can't afford to lose. It is committed to remedying the greatest defect of the allied war effort so far, the want of sufficient troops to wrest territory from the Taliban and guarantee the security of the inhabitants. This is the crucial respect in which the new American policy mirrors the successful "surge" in Iraq.
At the same time, Barack Obama has committed himself to a much greater effort to train the Afghan army and to foster civil society in the country. These are formidable tasks, but again the goal is not that life in Kandahar should approach that in Westmount. It's to mobilize the considerable popular resentment that exists against the Taliban, while defusing that against the central authority and its foreign allies.
Let's not forget that when the Taliban fell in 2002, the vast majority of Afghans - including those living in the regions that provided the movement's ethnic base - were delighted to see it go. They'd had it with the group's bizarre combination of repression, ineptitude and a criminally irresponsible foreign policy of harbouring Arab terrorists. Even today, for all of the failings of the Karzai government, levels of support for the Taliban in the regions in which it is strongest seem not to exceed 25 per cent. Its brutal acts of terror have cowed its opponents but made it no friends. Those who co-operate with it do so only because they see no alternative. Mr. Obama is determined to provide them with one.
Yes, if this is to work, the Karzai government must do more to put its own house in order, and the United States, Canada and Britain must extract more help from their wavering NATO allies. A major effort to build the institutions of a decent society must parallel those on the military front. Farmers must be won away from growing opium, and everything feasible must be done to deprive jihadis of their refuge in Pakistan. All this will be expensive - but defeat would prove far more so.
Similarly, our progress in liberalizing Afghanistan, however slow, is hard won and remains crucial. A better life for women and for all who promote a more moderate Islamic society there is not just frosting on the cake. It is essential to the success of our overall project. To waver in our support of it would be not only wrong but foolish.
Consider, by contrast, the position of Charles W. Freeman Jr., the controversial foreign policy "realist" appointed and then unappointed as Mr. Obama's chairman of the National Intelligence Council. According to him, the West should tolerate the return of the Taliban to power, so long as it agrees not to harbour al-Qaeda. Afghanistan's domestic policy is simply not our concern.
As usual, such "realism" is half right - and dead wrong. Let's get really realistic. You don't gain influence in the Middle East - or anywhere else - by stabbing your allies in the back by handing their enemies (and yours) a victory.
The proposed marriage law is abominable, and has aroused a proportionate uproar among the allies on whom the Afghan government depends. President Hamid Karzai and his council can scuttle it and would be feckless not to do so. Unfortunately such glitches are to be expected in an epoch of political transition. This war has consumed too many Canadian lives, and too much continues to ride on it, for us to be tempted to abandon it in a fit of pique.
Clifford Orwin is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
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