John Manley, while still in politics, had a terrific but cutting metaphor to describe Canada in the world.
With our defence and diplomatic budgets plummeting, Mr. Manley said Canada was like the guy at dinner who heads for the washroom just before the cheque arrives. In Afghanistan, Canada has not headed for the loo, but paid its fair share of the bill, and more, in money and deaths.
For this payment to continue, Mr. Manley and the four other members of his task force yesterday urged the Canadian government to say to other NATO countries in Afghanistan: Help us or we're gone. Canada, his group recommended, should remain in troubled Kandahar province past the February, 2009, deadline set by Parliament - but only if the government better equips Canada's soldiers and if NATO finds another 1,000 combat troops to complement the 1,000 or so Canada has there now.
The task force, therefore, recommended a course that no party now endorses. It dismissed, quite properly, the naive (and very dangerous) NDP pullout strategy, and dissed the Liberal and Bloc Québécois demands for troop removal in February, 2009.
But the group also nixed staying beyond that date willy-nilly, instead inviting Canada to play a game of chicken with NATO. It's quite a game the Manley group recommended. If NATO can't find 1,000 more troops to help in Kandahar, how would it ever find, say, 3,000 to replace the Canadians if they left? A guess - and it's only a guess - is that the extra troops will be some of the 3,000 or so U.S. Marines who will be going "temporarily" to Afghanistan. Their temporary assignment could easily be made permanent if some U.S. forces are withdrawn from Iraq.
A permanent increase in the U.S. contingent in Kandahar would mean the Manley task force's objective had been met. The Harper government could therefore sign up Canada for longer duty, assuming Parliament agreed. Of course, in its current minority situation, that would not happen. Predictably, all three opposition parties restated their well-known positions without even reading the report.
How long should Canada remain? That would depend, said the task force, on better training for the Afghan army and police so that they could defend their own country. An optimist would say this task would take a decade; a pessimist would predict it will happen when the Leafs next win the Stanley Cup. Either way, the security situation in the South is worsening, the police are incompetent, the Afghan army only slightly better.
The Manley group made a persuasive case for Canada to remain in Afghanistan, a mission sanctioned by the United Nations and desired by the majority of Afghans. Mr. Manley himself made a customarily passionate mini-speech about Canada doing its fair share of heavy lifting internationally, and effectively dismissed those who want Canada to do traditional "peacekeeping," by observing that there is no peace to keep.
Less persuasive, however, was the idea that another 1,000 combat troops, plus perhaps additional NATO troops elsewhere in the country, might speed along the process of political stability, military security and economic development.
The panel's quite sobering and accurate picture of Afghanistan's challenges made clear the difficulty for NATO in achieving "success" there.
Insurgents get money from the opium trade, but the task force essentially urged more of the same to combat that trade, the same having proved a spectacular failure.
Nor did the panel have much to recommend - in fairness, how could it? - about how to stop the spread of radical Islam from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan in the form of suicide bombers and other Taliban extremists. Nor could the panel - again, how could it? - do more than report on the endemic corruption within the Afghan government that turns citizens against it.
The panel did chastise the Canadian International Development Agency for poor co-ordination and not enough effective aid. It also blasted the Harper government's centralized control of information, including gagging of Canadian officials, that contributed to an "information deficit." (Fat chance this recommendation will be heeded.)
Afghanistan is a conflict of "ferocious complexity," said the panel. "No simple solutions present themselves." Both observations are profoundly correct, and both will be ignored by most politicians.
Mr. Manley and his colleagues didn't say so directly, but their report argued that the current strategy in Kandahar (and more widely in Afghanistan) isn't working. A thousand or so additional troops, helpful as they would be, won't put things right either.