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Harper and Karzai: Conditions for success were not present.Reuters

Stephen Harper is bristling in the face of the latest Afghanistan headaches, especially a demanding NATO coalition and an erratic Hamid Karzai. But these issues should not stop Mr. Harper from being more vigorous than he has been in laying out his vision of Afghanistan's future, and the part that Canada will be playing in it.

Clearly, there are problems with the mission: a history of failed interventions; recent Taliban successes; an increasingly unreliable partner in Mr. Karzai; continuing deficiencies in the institutions NATO is trying to build up (for instance, the illiteracy rate in the Afghan National Police is more than 90 per cent, while rampant bribery accounts for 23 per cent of GDP).

But there have been successes too: a tremendous growth in school access, especially for girls; new infrastructure across the country, including Kandahar province, where Canada has been leading reconstruction and security efforts; and a hardening of attitudes against the Taliban.

Canada has been a staunch ally in the fight for security and stability in Afghanistan, with a sacrifice - billions of dollars, 145 dead; many more wounded or traumatized - as great. Since Mr. Harper became Prime Minister, he has spent considerable political capital to keep Canada there until 2011, despite minority parliaments and calls for an absolute or more immediate withdrawal from all other parties.

Yet, from time to time, another side of Mr. Harper emerges. In May, 2009, he told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that NATO would probably never defeat the insurgency. And if Mr. Harper has been a doubter about the mission all along, as reported in The Globe and Mail last week, he has some explaining to do.

To let the clock run down to 2011 without a sense of Canada's longer-term commitment and strategic interests would dishonour the sacrifices that Canada has made to this point. And not to actively articulate how the coalition should approach the Afghanistan conundrum would mean that other countries will be left to set the agenda.

Mr. Harper should look to other NATO leaders who have been more accountable to their constituents for the Afghanistan intervention. In December, Barack Obama laid out a comprehensive justification for the troop surge in Afghanistan in a half-hour speech to the audience most affected by the policy - cadets who would soon be fighting there. Last week, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband published "How to End the War in Afghanistan," a long essay describing both successes and failures to date, and laying out what a political settlement might look like.

Instead, we get quarterly reports to Parliament: useful compilations of information, but not a real indication of what the government is thinking. There may be a domestic consensus that Canada's combat role in Afghanistan should end in 2011. But that should not mean short-selling Canada's leadership role.