How different the outcome of this election might have been had Stephen Harper not taken Afghanistan off the table at the outset, vowing a 2011 "date certain" for withdrawal of Canadian troops. How different if the opposition parties had pressed the issue, just the same, asking repeatedly (a) what exactly is our goal in Afghanistan, and (b) how realistic are our chances of success?
We learn now that the Tories, out of deceit or incompetence, grossly understated to the public the true financial costs of our Afghan mission. We now know the Tories under-estimated the cost to Canadians, calculating that some $12 billion had been spent to date.
Now the Parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, estimates the total cost by 2011 to be $14 billion to $18 billion, due to over-runs and items conveniently not included in the Tories' calculations. That's equal to $1,500 per Canadian household.
Worse, Page met resistance from the government - specifically, the Department of National Defense - in doing his Parliament-mandated work. He was unable, for instance, even to obtain such basic information as the number of our troops in Afghanistan and what type of equipment they have. Is it any wonder the mainstream media have been so frustrated in reporting to Canadians our "progress" in Afghanistan?
Worse still - and shades of the sponsorship-scandal and gun-registry fiascos - Ottawa's bookkeeping on our Afghan-related expenses is a shambles. Our government itself likely doesn't grasp the true costs to taxpayers of this hastily undertaken mission. As the Globe reported Friday,
And Mr. Page's report indicates that federal government accounting on Afghanistan is a mess; he told reporters it 'has not met any appropriate standard, There's a lack of transparency and also some inconsistences in the numbers."
It's an excellent bet that if we don't know what we're spending, and how and where, Ottawa also cannot know if our 2,500 troops in Afghanistan are deployed as effectively as they should be. And what the true nature and impact of our modest humanitarian efforts has been.
These are your tax dollars at work, diverted from other urgent causes at home and abroad, and our precious daughters and sons on the front lines. Yet somehow, as this site has marvelled before, our troubled Afghan mission is not an election issue - the very time we have the best opportunity to ask the tough questions required.
All this might be academic if positive reports were emerging from Afghanistan. But all year the news has gotten worse. Finally, on Friday, came the sort of report we were dreading: A preliminary draft of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate - the joint effort of 16 U.S. intel agencies - concluding that we and our NATO coalition partners are making no progress in in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
There remains no national government worthy of the name in a country still controlled mostly by regional warlords. The country's opium crop, which has registered record yields during the U.S-led occupation dating from 2001, continues to supply about 80 per cent of the European heroin market. The "government" in Kabul is corrupt beyond description. The Afghan army is nowhere near ready to assume the task of protecting the country from Taliban insurgents who with impunity strike inside Afghanistan from their sanctuaries in bordering Pakistan.
Our NATO partners, meanwhile, long reluctant to fight, continue to be absent from the most dangerous provinces of Kandahar, where the Canadian forces are, and neighbouring Hellmand, where the British are concentrated. Now we learn the NATO forces have been prohibited by their contributing nations even from relatively risk-free humanitarian and police work in the safer parts of the country.
The U.S. has pushed for NATO's 50,000 troops to take on a counter-narcotics role to hit back at the Taliban, whose increasing attacks have cast doubt on the prospects of a western military victory in Afghanistan.
However, Germany, Spain and others were wary and their doubts led to NATO imposing conditions on the anti-drug mandate for ISAF.
Without a total rethink of what we're trying to accomplish there, our Afghan mission is a lost cause, and a costly one that is risking the lives of Canadians, draining our treasury, and earning us scant if any international goodwill. Indeed, the killing of civilians by NATO forces, including Canadians, is having the opposite effect, no matter that it has been accidental. The many civilian deaths have been a convenient excuse for the Karzai "government" in Kabul to resist reforms including anti-corruption measures. The Americans are beginning to acknowledge a failed strategy, if comments Thursday by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff are any indication. Why aren't we?
Shame on the Tories for keeping us in the dark, and on the opposition for acting as if we're not a country at war.