Despite the fact that Stevie Harper has decided to "impanel" a "non-partisan" group of so-called experts to determine the value and future of the Canadian mission to Afghanistan, there is already a group which is working diligently to evaluate what the overall NATO mission is actually accomplishing.
They have little in the way of positive news to report.
THE bloodshed in Afghanistan has reached levels not seen since the 2001 invasion as anger at bungling by an ineffective Government in Kabul and its foreign backers stokes support for the Taliban and other extremist groups.On doesn't have to think too hard as to where this has happened in the past. How often have we heard, "They never won a battle when they engaged us in a real fight," only to be reminded that they actually won the war?
"This place can only go up or down, and it's going down fast, which is something the international community simply will not understand," said a security analyst who has been working in and out of Afghanistan for 30 years.
Almost six years after the hardline Islamist Taliban were ousted, their insurgency is gaining strength, fuelled by resentment at NATO bombing of civilians, billions of dollars of wasted aid, a lack of jobs and record crops of opium, the raw material for heroin.
The fighting is spreading to places once relatively safe, including the capital and the western and northern parts of the country.
"This is a guerilla movement but it does seem to have a real momentum behind it at the moment," said Joanna Nathan, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank headed by former foreign minister Gareth Evans.
In Kabul, where suicide bombs have killed almost 50 people in two weeks, foreigners are increasingly ordered into "lockdown" -- barred by employers from leaving their heavily protected compounds, often behind armed guards, razor wire and concrete blast walls.
"It's all now too close -- people are jumpy," said a UN official who has lived in the dusty, chaotic city ringed by mountains for four years.
The revitalised Taliban have switched tactics back to traditional guerilla warfare after attempts to take on foreign troops under separate NATO and US commands in pitched battles last year resulted in heavy casualties.
"They never evaporated into thin air. The Taliban were there, they have been there and they are here now," said government adviser and former minister Hamidullah Tarzi, carrying his trademark silver pistol.So, reconstruction, in real terms, clearly hasn't happened.
"One reason for their renewed strength is that the people are more or less amenable to what they are doing and maybe some of the (NATO) bombardments have not been very wisely executed.
"That has helped the people get closer to the Taliban. They are dying and they feel that they are the same (as the Talibs) from the religious point of view."
Scores, possibly hundreds, of civilians have been killed in air strikes, mainly called in to support ground troops fighting rebels. The US-led NATO force, government officials and village leaders differ over details and numbers.
The Taliban-led insurgency is also being bolstered by drugs money -- the UN reported a 50per cent jump in this year's opium crop -- local and tribal disputes, and a lack of jobs.
With the wrecked economy and the dangers of getting crops to market, being a paid fighter for the Taliban is often the only way isolated Afghans can feed their families.
"It's important to emphasise: I don't think the Taliban themselves are wildly popular," Ms Nathan said.I'll be accused of taking a long leap here. Go ahead. Bang away. How the hell do you think a bunch of localized Reform Party fanatics managed to hijack a centrist Canadian political party and get themselves elected into a position of actually governing a population they absolutely despise?
"I don't think people want Taliban times back. It is a broad dissatisfaction with what is happening in the country now. I think the Taliban are very clever at appealing to people or groups that are locally disenfranchised or disempowered."
Much of the violence in Afghanistan is rooted in ordinary crime as the conflict erodes security and the rule of law and young men desperately seek money.That's because somebody, somewhere has an inverted view of what reconstruction was all about. In a country with absolutely nothing except an opium poppy crop to support itself, nobody offered anything better. Build schools, dig wells, even pave roads. Without a base industry or base industries, those things will become clients of whatever industry thrives. And right now, that is opium production.
"Some of my friends don't have jobs. They just walk the streets. They talk among themselves of kidnapping a foreigner just to make some money," said "Sayed", a university business student who did not want his real name used.
Guns are easy to come by and drug addiction in the country that supplies almost all the world's opium is rising.
Unemployment is near 40 per cent and many Afghans live in appalling conditions, with no running water, sewerage or electricity. Roads are poor and in the capital -- crammed with tens of thousands of squatters camped in mud brick huts -- most middle-class residents are lucky to have power a few hours a day.
"People thought democracy would give them everything -- jobs, roads, electricity, water -- but nothing of this sort has happened," Mr Tarzi said.
"In fact, it's getting worse. There is a lack of jobs, a lack of employment. Overall, nothing much has been done.
"The money that has come in has not been productive in relation to industrialisation."
Confidence in the Afghan Government, the first democratically elected administration in three decades, is fading fast.You can't win when you have enemies on both sides of the wire.
President Hamid Karzai, 49, the philosopher and former freedom fighter who has ruled this country since 2001, faces criticism for his failure to stamp out the Taliban and raise living standards.
Dubbed "the mayor of Kabul", because he rarely leaves his palace and his Government's writ barely extends beyond the capital, Mr Karzai is battling to balance the demands of the people who elected him with those of the foreign backers who prop up his Government.
Domestically, Mr Karzai relies on a ragtag collection of former warlords, mujaheddin freedom fighters, ex-communists and others for support and is locked in a power struggle with his parliament. The President and the legislators -- a large number of whom are illiterate -- are coming to grips with democracy as much as with each other.
Mr Karzai has been criticised for failing to sack or prosecute corrupt officials and of handing out jobs as political favours to shore up support.
His Government has also failed to make serious inroads into the $3.3billion-a-year opium industry, which is tightly intertwined with the conflict and has been breaking production records almost every year since the Taliban's fall.
"The narcotics and insurgency feed into each other," said Ms Nathan.
Although it is a volatile area and a centre of Taliban support, the Dutch forces had forged close links with community leaders, cutting down the fighting, until a botched poppy eradication program by a US private security firm a few months ago, analysts say.
"Uruzgan was going OK until they went in with tractors and started ripping the poppy fields up," said the Kabul-based security analyst. "The Dutch had a good relationship with the people down there, the local leaders, but when they rip up your crop, what do you do? You grab your gun. They didn't even do that much damage to the crops in the end."
Australia is one of a small group of countries -- along with the US, Britain, Canada and The Netherlands -- willing to send its soldiers to where most of the fighting is.Note a couple of things here. Canada falls in with the group of countries fighting in the south of Afghanistan. It would explain, at least in part, the smear-job performed by Harper on his own country while addressing the Australian parliament. Howard and Harper, political soul-mates, both performing international acts of fellatio on George W. Bush, are locked into the Bush agenda, even if there isn't one.
Some European countries refuse to deploy their troops to the volatile south. Several members of the NATO-led force impose tough -- and, critics say, absurd -- limits, or caveats, on how their soldiers can be used, with some barring their units from fighting in the snow, above certain altitudes or at night.
Ms Nathan said: "It is incredibly important to have nations who are prepared to go south in a robust way, to go down there not laden by caveats; to go down there to do what is needed, when it's needed, how it's needed."
The second thing worth noting is that the International Crisis Group is quite prepared to recommend that other NATO countries pick up the ball and run with it, including putting their troops in the dangerous areas and helping to eradicate the problem. The problem, whether anyone can see it or not, is the fact that the Bush administration has botched the task at hand so badly, that it will take a highly bolstered international effort to solve the problem.
But Harper has decided to create his own "panel of experts", not one of which has actually set foot in Afghanistan. They know nothing of the history of the place. They're going to read all about it, go there for a few days, meet as a group and then pass judgment on "the mission". All the while, they, and the Harper government will probably ignore the findings of the International Crisis Group.
That means we're wasting our money somewhere.
(H/T reader Cat for The Australian link)
Mea Culpa: As Alison was quick to point out to me, John Manley has been to Afghanistan. Even if his view was limited, he has at least the experience of being on the ground, primarily in Kabul. Jake Epp, as Minister of National Health during the Mulroney years did have some involvement with NGOs working in Afghanistan, although I am less likely to accept that it means anything. Remember, Jake Epp, after the Progressive Conservatives were all but wiped out in a federal election, joined the Alliance Party and threw his support behind Stockwell Day. I would question his judgement.