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Remembrance Day is approaching.

Despite some 160 dead, several thousand wounded and perhaps tens of thousands afflicted with continuing psychological disorders, the extent to which Canada's long and costly engagement in Afghanistan has faded from the public mind is striking.

Major questions, ranging from the handling of detainees to the decision to pursue aggressive counterinsurgency warfare in Kandahar, remain unanswered. Yet, there's no appetite, particularly at the political level, for a searching retrospective.

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Absent a full public inquiry into Canadian involvement, it may be that the most that can be salvaged from more than a decade of war will be the possibility of avoiding similar mistakes in the future.

What lessons, then, might be learned by Canadians? There are many, but three in particular stand out.

Look before you leap. Going to war carries enormous consequences. If a commitment of that nature is being considered, the public interest requires that the full implications be carefully weighed and evaluated. Elected authorities and senior officials must ensure that comprehensive analysis and wide-ranging consultations have been conducted in advance of any decision.

By all indications, however, that was not the case in 2004-05, when Canada withdrew from participation in United Nations-mandated peace-support operations in Kabul in favour of joining Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar and, with it, the "global war on terror." This signalled a radical departure, but it was not acknowledged as such at the time. With a minimum of forethought, this country jettisoned a long tradition of diplomacy and internationalism, and substituted a much harder edge. As the costs began to multiply, it was as if the burden of history and the complexity of Afghan demography, society and culture came as a surprise.

In this instance, Canadian decision-making displayed an appalling lack of due diligence and public communications, and there has still been no adequate accounting on the part of those responsible.

Act strategically. Fundamental changes in international policy direction require clear priorities, a detailed plan and defined performance benchmarks. Canada, the U.S. and NATO had practically none. Objectives kept changing, and now the enterprise is showing every sign of ending badly. The case in support of some form of multilateral intervention was compelling in late 2001. Yet, following the initial success, things went badly off track.

The U.S.-led coalition likely obtained its major achievable strategic objectives – removal of the Taliban government and dismantling of al-Qaeda – by early 2003. If the promotion of democracy, economic recovery and nation-building were the ultimate goals, then the intercession should have been largely demilitarized at that juncture, with a wholesale move to civil society-led development assistance. Instead, the coalition leader became distracted by another, much larger war of choice – Iraq – and the coalition forces lost their way.

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When you don't know where you want to go, or where you're going, you will never arrive.

Learn from failure. NATO's ill-advised decision to effectively join one side in a civil war has wrought a terrible backlash. The Taliban are now firmly re-established, and quite possibly poised to resume control – or try – following the almost certain collapse of the Karzai regime or its postwar successor. Afghanistan is, in many respects, worse off than it was a decade ago.

The huge increase in "green on blue" attacks directed at the coalition forces is especially worrisome and now accounts for about a quarter of all coalition casualties. Moreover, this latest insurgent tactic, the "insider" threat, could derail NATO's 2014 exit planning. The message here is that there are no foreign military solutions to Afghanistan's vexing problems of underdevelopment and insecurity.

The current attempt at the "Vietnamization" of this conflict shows every sign of going the same way as it did in Southeast Asia in 1975.

There is scant evidence, in Ottawa or in the other coalition capitals, that any of these lessons have been learned. After almost 12 years of intense engagement in Afghanistan, this country has never had much more than an ad hoc, reactive policy. Above all, we seem to have forgotten one of the Cold War's most enduring truths: that militaries work best when they're not used. Take the sword from the scabbard, and it makes a dreadful mess.

When policy becomes an instrument of war, problems quickly compound.

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As Nov. 11 approaches, that axiom – in addition to the need for due diligence, strategic oversight and learning from failure – is one that all Canadians might usefully remember.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an author, educator, analyst and senior fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. See www.guerrilladiplomacy.com.

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