OTTAWA - The Afghans have an expression, "You have the watches, but we have the time." It reflects a long history of armies arriving in their land with vastly superior technology and resources, only to be worn down and worn out by a relentless resistance. The Afghans have rarely needed to outfight armies, just outlast them, and wait for them to decide that the price of victory is higher than the cost of defeat.
With NATO countries now tying our withdrawal plans to the calendar rather than to the achievement of military objectives, we seem set to rehearse history yet again.
But for Canadians, our ability to successfully conclude our mission and effect an honourable departure is being prejudiced by a remarkable national amnesia about why we went to Afghanistan in the first place and what we are actually trying to achieve before we leave.
Today, the popular narrative holds that we went to Afghanistan as peacekeepers, to foster liberal-democratic political development, advance the status of women, and provide humanitarian assistance.
This is a reassuring storyline that plays to our national self-perception as a beacon of non-violent civility in a cruel world, and it blithely escapes difficult questions about the use of deadly force in foreign policy.
It is also complete and utter nonsense.
When the Taliban swept to power in 1996 on a wave of totalitarian fundamentalism, we did not invade. When they imposed gender apartheid on the country and enforced it with public mutilations and executions, we did not invade. When they disrupted international aid to millions of Afghan children, we did not invade. When they committed mass killings of civilians, we did not invade.
We invaded after, and only after, Al-Qaeda was given shelter by the Taliban to use Afghanistan as a base of operations for their assault on the World Trade Centre. We invaded after the United Nations declared this attack "a threat to international peace and security," giving rise to, "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence."
We went into Afghanistan to deny that country as a staging ground to those who had and would harm our allies and ourselves: we went into Afghanistan to kill our enemies, before our enemies could kill more Canadians.
This is the ugly truth that comes with living in an often-ugly world, and we do ourselves no credit if we choose to believe comforting fictions after we have taken disquieting decisions.
Less than a week after the Al-Qaeda assault, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion affirming Canada's "determination to bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack," a motion which bore the name of every member of the Commons from every party, without exception.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien moved the motion. Alexa McDonough, for the NDP, demanded "that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes be tracked down and punished." Stockwell Day, for the Alliance, called the Taliban "the face of evil" and asked Canadians to prepare for "a genuine war". Gilles Duceppe, for the Bloc Quebecois, denounced "blind pacifism" going on that "the pacifists of 1939 were wrong and we ended up with Hitler".
And so Canada went to war.
But a strange thing happens in war, which appears to have taken some of those same Parliamentarians entirely by surprise. People kill. People die. Young Canadians barely out of adolescence come home in flag-draped coffins. Parents, widows, and orphans grieve. And after eight years, Canadians can not help but lose heart.
However, if we allow the national debate to continue to retreat into the comforting political myth that the Canadian Forces are in Afghanistan primarily as social workers rather than as soldiers, then the mission will surely fail, because it will be impossible for us to come to a meaningful national consensus on what we are trying to achieve.
I fear that the current government is unwilling to engage in an honest national debate because it believes that Canadians prefer easy lies to hard truths. But Canadians are not the fools or the cowards that such politicians take us for.
Centuries before the Afghans coined their eastern expression, the Greeks coined a western one: "the first casualty of war is the truth". If our mission in Afghanistan is to end as anything other than a tragic misadventure, we must recognise the truth as our ally, and not our enemy.
Akaash Maharaj served as National Policy Chair of the Liberal Party of Canada when the government of Canada first deployed troops to Afghanistan. His personal web site is www.Maharaj.org.