Canadians face a tough balancing act in Afghanistan in the coming year. With combat troops set to withdraw by July of 2011, the remaining Canadian military trainers and civilian workers will face steep challenges in their efforts to strengthen Afghan security forces and support the Afghan government. The question is: Are Canadians ready to face the alternative if even this limited mission fails?
Canada has already borne tremendous sacrifices. With 154 soldiers killed and another 1,500 injured since it entered the war in 2002, Canada has marked the third-largest number of NATO casualties after the United States and Britain. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians have worked heroically to stabilize the southern province of Kandahar, logging in countless frustrating days away from their families while battling both ruthless insurgents in the field and the politics of policy drift in the NATO alliance.
Yet, a decade into the war, the job is still not done and there is a strong risk that Canadian blood and treasure may have been spent in vain. Although NATO troops have penetrated Taliban territory in the south, local government institutions remain underdeveloped and insurgent elements have moved swiftly to fill the void. NATO partners have failed to reverse the devastating effects of the Taliban's brutal campaign of intimidation and assassination. The roads may be nominally safer, but the population remains well out of reach of the counterinsurgency campaign in Kandahar.
It should be little wonder, then, that Canada has maintained its decision to call its combat troops home and that other NATO countries are likely to follow suit. The U.S. confirmed at the NATO summit in Lisbon that it, too, will withdraw almost all of its troops by 2014. The agreed-on exit strategy sounds simple enough: Build support by protecting civilians, shore up security with stronger Afghan security forces, pound the Taliban into submission, then cut a power-sharing deal with them that allows the government of Hamid Karzai to stagger on while ramping up the rhetoric that only Afghans can solve the country's challenges.
The problem is, none of this is working, and a hasty exit risks further aggravating the growing instability in South Asia. And that's a risk that neither Canada nor the rest of the world can afford to take.
There is no question that 2014 is a more sensible date for a full coalition withdrawal than July of 2011, and that the extra time is needed to stabilize the country. But there are already indications that the Taliban are prepared to ride out the next three years. They sense that NATO has given up, seeking only an exit with honour. History has shown, however, that political settlement in war is rarely reachable unless there's a genuine balance of power between opposing forces.
But NATO sees a peace deal as a precursor to withdrawal. Like most other NATO members, Canada is basing its exit strategy on the hope that Mr. Karzai's policy of reconciliation and reintegration will result in political stabilization. As Canada paves the way for its own withdrawal, however, it must realize that the serious shortcomings of the Karzai government and of the intervention overall in Afghanistan jeopardize the success of genuine reconciliation.
With corruption rife at every level of the Afghan government, the Karzai administration is in no shape to secure a peace deal. After two massively fraudulent elections, Mr. Karzai himself has lost all credibility. He has talked a good game on rolling out a program of national reconciliation, but he's no longer able to build consensus among political elites. Afghan powerbrokers and insurgents alike recognize that the only thing consistent about Mr. Karzai's reconciliation policy is its inconsistency, and that doesn't augur well for NATO's hoped for political settlement.
Simply put: Shortcuts and backroom deals just won't cut it. Instead, Canada and other NATO members must focus their efforts on reforms that can give Afghans stability, security and rule of law. More attention and resources, not less, must be focused on building governmental capacity and combatting corruption. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken an important first step with his announcement in Lisbon that Canadian money will not go toward shoring up Mr. Karzai's government if it fails to curb corruption. But this will require a more determined focus on institutional development. It calls for profound reforms and fundamental change, both in the way Kabul operates and in the way Kabul is supported.
In the coming months, Canada and other NATO partners are likely to face a critical choice between supporting constitutional review or standing by silently as the Afghan government implodes. The alternative for Afghans is constitutional change - giving power back to the people rather than centring it in Kabul - or a return to full-scale civil war. After so many years of sacrifice on the battlefield and financial generosity at home, Canadians must recognize that their continued engagement in Afghanistan must rest not on wishful thinking but on a policy grounded in reality.
Louise Arbour, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.