It is an extraordinary testament to the resilience of Canadian troops that they've been able to conceal how much this country's combat forces have been exhausted by years of war in Afghanistan.

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Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk speaks to the Canadian Club of Ottawa in November 2008. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The refusal of the military to acknowledge the weariness means Canadians are unaware that the exhaustion of the combat mission is far worse than it has appeared. It's a fighting mission, we need to remind ourselves, that will continue for another 2½ years (until the end of 2011).

Other allies have not been so silent about the drain of fighting Taliban in Afghanistan's southern provinces. British counterparts there, by comparison, frequently go to the mass media with complaints about lack of weapons and equipment, inadequate and overstressed forces, even poor tactics.    

Here, only Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, the head of Canada's army, has said enough to raise eyebrows. He insisted in the spring that his troops will need a year's rest after Afghanistan, along with replacement of worn-out equipment.

It's known within military circles that Leslie is far more concerned about the state of the army than he's admitted publicly. And so are his immediate superiors, including Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff.

'The hollow army'

While preparing a recent documentary about Natynczyk for The National, I was able to obtain a leaked internal military report on the state of the forces, signed by Leslie. The report actually refers to "the hollow army."

The restricted report, circulated several months ago only within the uppermost levels of the Defence Department, points out the current efficiencies in all branches of the military. Its most searing conclusion is that the army "is now operating beyond its capacity."

"The war in Afghanistan," the report warns, "illustrates deficiencies in the army and the Canadian Forces."

In blunt terms, the report warns the army can't continue at the current pace, which demands it deploy 4,000 troops a year to Afghanistan while preparing and training 12,000 others for combat rotation. "The Afghanistan mission is particularly taxing on army capabilities and the current operations tempo is not sustainable," it says.

The key concern is an "army leadership deficit," as thousands of army officers and sergeants leave the service — many having had more than enough tours of Afghanistan — a loss compounded by a lack of military trainers to prepare troops for combat there.

This situation, in turn, is made more serious by the military's deficit in highly skilled technicians, who in many cases are simply not available, at least to be recruited into wartime military. To fill gaps on the ground, hundreds of sailors and air personnel have been plucked from ships and airfields to take on infantry duties in Kandahar. Reservists, meanwhile, already make up more than 20 per cent of the combat mission and this civilian source cannot be squeezed further for backup soldiers.

When I recently asked Natynczyk about the report, his naturally upbeat demeanour changed to something more somber.

"It's tough right now because we don't have enough soldiers on the ground to do the job," he said, adding that some in the military are tired. "The senior NCOs [non-commissioned officers] and officers especially ..."

The tough grind of service

Outside military observers insist the army still downplays its problems. Even the term "hollow army" is not stark enough; it's now close to being a "broken army," suggests Doug Bland, a highly regarded military lecturer and historian from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Bland recently suggested the military is so battered and worn by Afghanistan that any further service abroad, after Afghanistan, is unlikely for the foreseeable future.                             

"Soldiers are actually tired, you know, physically tired," Bland said, stressing the term exhaustion is not just an overused figure of speech and adding that the military is seeing more cases of mental illness and depression. The concern, he said, should be less about leaving in 2011 and more about getting to 2011.

A large part of the problem is that service in Afghanistan is actually far tougher for the tiny force that carries virtually the whole weight of Canada's commitment to the war.

Because Canada's land army has only 19,000 troops, just to maintain 3,000 in Kandahar means the round-and-round rotation of units. Troops have to train for a year before going, then spend much of a year in theatre-rotation (including getting there and back) only to face upon their return another prolonged period away from families on retraining.

Two Afghan rotations and more are becoming customary and this means, for many, intolerably long periods away from families. Even four and five tours are no longer uncommon.

The other serious drain is equipment. The army recently estimated it is going to need $5 billion to spend on new armoured and transport vehicles, and a good part of that will simply replace or repair equipment broken or worn out in Afghanistan.

The "hollow army" report reveals that an astonishing 35 to 60 per cent of vehicles are off-road for repair at any one time. Here, too, of course, the hollowness shows: there's not enough personnel to repair them.

Not given to mincing words, the report warns that "staff capacity is being overwhelmed."

Given the state of the army, generals Leslie and Natynczyk have done a remarkable job plugging gaps, keeping up appearances and, perhaps above all, maintaining morale of troops and their families throughout the service — all the while running a war abroad.

It's likely the most difficult operation pulled off by generals since the end of the Second World War and, of course, has enormous political implications.

Not ready to concede defeat

It's not clear whether Stephen Harper's Conservative government is grateful, but it should be, given the lack of public debate over Afghanistan in Ottawa. If exposed, deficiencies like these would have caused a furious political uproar anywhere else within NATO.

The Ottawa attitude seems to be: "Oh well, Canada will be out of there soon." Which Canada won't be, unless you consider 2012 a short time away during wartime.

Generals have several reasons to put the best possible face on the mission by playing down "hollow army" talk in public. Politically, they need good relations with Ottawa if they're to get needed new funding, especially in this economic climate.

At heart, also, generals are not "defeatists" by nature and none of the top command of the Canadian Forces is ready to concede a sour conclusion to this mission.

They still believe Afghanistan may yield a positive outcome as more U.S. reinforcements arrive and new strategies are tried. They also expect the Canadian Forces, widely respected throughout NATO for its efforts, will be involved in some significant capacity well beyond 2012.

They feel a real need to let government know the Forces need rest and serious repair — but at the same time don't want to let the impression get around that they'll be unable to return to big overseas missions in future.

So as much as possible they've kept a lid on the "hollow army" talk, even though it's a condition the nation surely deserves to know much more about.