Outsiders cannot win a counter-insurgency war if local leaders are not committed to winning.
If the local leaders are ambivalent, or play both sides, or are distrusted by their populations, outsiders are in for long-term trouble. Welcome, therefore, to Afghanistan.
President Hamid Karzai was once a hero in the United States. He sat in the front row of the U.S. House of Representatives during a State of the Union address by former president George W. Bush. American fashionistas swooned over his cape and cap. He was a Pashtun, as the U.S. needed to represent that set of tribes in the new government of Kabul.
It turned out, however, that the Americans and others misread their man. If not corrupt himself, Mr. Karzai has turned a blind eye to massive, systematic corruption - in fairness, because Afghanistan has always been a massively corrupt place, at least by Western standards.
The difference with today's corruption is that the sums available for corruption are larger than ever, because the billions of dollars the Americans and NATO allies are pouring into one of the world's poorest countries provides booty beyond the previous imaginations of Afghan chieftains, who maintain the allegiance of their followers - and enrich themselves - through corruption. The West, while trying to curtail corruption, is unwillingly abetting it.
Mr. Karzai was re-elected in a contest pockmarked by fraud. If he didn't steal the presidency, then he borrowed it for the next four years. Once his legitimacy was called into question, he became pricklier than ever about Western criticism. Then, he tried to take for himself the right to name members of the Electoral Complaints Commission from the United Nations and Afghanistan's Supreme Court and Human Rights Commission.
It's been clear for a very long time that the NATO mission in Afghanistan was in serious trouble, and that the insertion of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops would likely be a palliative rather than a cure. Presumably, Mr. Karzai can see this, and has taken to playing both sides to the middle, not quite sure which way the future will lead.
Therefore, difficult as it is to say no to a Canadian ally, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is right to refuse any extension of a Canadian military presence in Afghanistan. A lot of Canadian lives have already been given - and this is very painful to say - in vain, in the sense that conditions for success in Afghanistan, for which soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice, were not present.
Once we passed through the rah-rah reporting of the war's early stages and settled into a more sober analysis, it became clear that the mission lacked most of the elements necessary for counter-insurgency to succeed, including, as we now see, an honest and trustworthy local partner.
It really does mock the dead for Mr. Karzai to be now saying that Western troops, including presumably Canadians, are seen as invaders - although he is not entirely wrong, because that is indeed how they are seen by some Afghans.
He and his government asked for those soldiers. If the Afghan army was remotely competent, and if the police forces were not widely viewed by the local population as corrupt, the on-the-ground battle for which we were all presumably fighting might be tilting in a more favourable direction.
Time has never been on NATO's side, since the appetite could not endure for a conflict that has already dragged on much longer than anyone thought.
The Americans, hopeful and hubristic, have injected a much larger military presence into Afghanistan, a kind of le tout pour le tout bet that itself has a time limit imposed upon it. They are now finding, to their irritation and dismay, that Mr. Karzai and his government are not in the fight as the Americans want and need. Hence the angry private words between the two governments, and the barely concealed mutual public disappointments.
Canada will undoubtedly disappoint the Americans and British who are building up their forces. There could be quiet diplomatic consequences of Canada's rejection of their request to remain, albeit in a more limited form.
We shall see in two years, however, whether their decision to fight with larger numbers in Afghanistan has actually done much good. The history of that place, and the endemic muddles there, suggest the odds against meeting the military objectives are rather long, what with the locals not fully engaged in the fight.