What explains Prime Minister Stephen Harper's sudden change of heart on Afghanistan? One day he's vowing to shut the door and turn out the lights on the Canadian mission by next July, the next he's channelling Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. Now he tells us that 950 Canadian soldiers will stay on as trainers, "to honour the sacrifice we've made and consolidate those gains."
Sweet. But that's not why we're staying on. We're staying on because U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and our friends at NATO put the arm on him, and when those folks get that insistent, it's awfully hard to refuse. The new exit strategy for Afghanistan is to train enough security forces so Afghans can take control of their own country by 2014 and NATO can go home. This is not a military plan. It's a political plan.
The good thing about this plan (for us) is that Mr. Harper is determined to keep our troops inside the wire and out of harm's way (although these days, no place in Afghanistan is truly inside the wire). The bad thing is that no one can explain what, exactly, we think we'll achieve, or how we'll achieve it.
"The Afghan army is the most respected institution in Afghanistan - but that's not saying much," says Eugene Lang, co-author of The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar. As for the police, let's just say that many people fear them more than they fear the Taliban. (Actually, because of infiltration, some of the police are the Taliban.)
If money alone could buy success, then success would be a snap. The U.S. and NATO are now pouring a billion dollars a month into training Afghan forces - more than the total monthly budget of the entire government. Publicly, they've tried to stress the increasing competence and battle-readiness of Afghan troops. Off the record, it's a mess. The training effort has been bogged down by corruption, illiteracy, drug use, vanishing supplies, lack of discipline, downright refusal to fight, and rival ethnic groups who frequently hate each other more than they hate the enemy.
There's also the issue of divided loyalties. Afghan National Army soldiers armed with cellphones have been known to tip off the Taliban in return for a small fee. "We had to remove all their cellphones hours before a mission for fear that the operation would be compromised," one senior American officer told the New York Daily News. "It was hard to know if their loyalties fell with us and their unit or the folks in the village we were getting ready to visit."
A British Broadcasting Corp. reporter visited one base last month and found that almost half the men supposed to be in the battalion simply weren't there. "They have to lock the doors on the buses after they tell the recruits they are being sent to the south," said one senior Western official.
Under the best of circumstances, developing competent police and army forces takes years. But these circumstances aren't the best. Currently, only 14 per cent of the combined force can read or write - at the Grade 3 level. According to The New York Times, the official attrition rate is roughly 3 per cent a month - which means that, for the army to grow by 36,000 more soldiers, it must recruit and train 83,000 people.
The biggest challenge is what's known as the "leadership deficit." Although many individual soldiers are skilled and fiercely loyal, the Western concept of an officer class doesn't exist. Nor do the bureaucratic skills and literacy levels necessary to administer a large force.
I sympathize with people who say it would be "shameful" for us to cut and run now. But I also think someone should explain how any of our training efforts could possibly make a difference. Ultimately, the success of the Afghan forces depends on the support of the Afghan people.
And that brings us to the worst problem of all - the deeply corrupt and deeply reviled Karzai government itself. The way a lot of Afghans see it, we'll simply be helping to prop up another bad regime. And they won't be wrong.
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