Who knows what we are going to do in Afghanistan now?

Brian Stewart on the series of surprises that is Canada's new Afghanistan policy.

When it comes to Afghanistan, Canada's strategy now seems to be to pack one surprise on top of another.

I don't know how much it confuses the Taliban, but it sure baffles our allies, and even our own military.

Surprise has its place in war, of course, but who knew we would make it a Canadian specialty?

Just last week, for example, Prime Minister Stephen Harper completely reversed his formerly firm position by announcing Canadian troops would remain in Afghanistan past July 2011 after all, in the role of military trainers.

Then his government added another surprise: that instead of keeping 200 to 400 troops there, as was first considered, the new force would reach nearly 1,000.

This confounded even our own military, which appears to have known virtually nothing about this decision in advance. Nothing, that is, about where these troops would come from, which units would be used, or where they would be based in Afghanistan.

Who knew what, when? Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and Defence Minister Peter MacKay in Ottawa on Nov. 16, 2010, announcing the details of Canada's new policy toward Afghanistan. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Would these trainers be stationed in one camp? Or spread across a score of training bases? These are all important decisions, which, by week's end, Canada's generals were still unclear about.

More surprises

Given the military's confusion, there is much speculation in Ottawa these days about how much even Defence Minister Peter MacKay knew, or didn't know, about the policy reversal.

The only one who seemed not taken aback was Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, who had been in back-corridor talks with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon to see if there might be bipartisan support for such a training mission.

Rae's own leader, Michael Ignatieff, however, seemed about as surprised as everyone else. And the confusion didn't end there.

Shortly after announcing the extended training role, the Harper government then revealed that every aspect of our vaunted four-year-long mission in Kandahar itself is now to be shut down, along with the combat role.

That means everyone: diplomats, political advisers, development and engineering planners, police trainers, court and corrections advisers, the lot.

In some ways this is just as surprising, though less commented on, than the about-face on military trainers. Many aid and development workers were dumbfounded to learn Canada's civilian presence in Kandahar is also to be extinguished.

The news came with startling brevity: "The [civilian] people who are in Kandahar will be either reassigned to Kabul, as needed, or will be returning to Canada," Bev Oda, the minister for international co-operation announced.

Didn't see this coming

Afghan hands didn't see this coming. When I raised the future with aid groups active in Afghanistan earlier this year they seemed universally confident that some non-military efforts would continue in Kandahar, albeit at some reduced level and under other NATO protection.

The whole world is watching. The press room for the NATO summit in Lisbon, Nov. 19 and 20, 2010. (Yves Hamel/Reuters)

I'm not sure I believed it, but people I respected sure did.

You have to remember that this mission to Kandahar has been our biggest, combined military, diplomatic and development initiative since the Second World War with a total cost of close to $20 billion.

Canada and Kandahar had, some veterans of our mission there hoped, a certain bond.

Now, our disappearance from Kandahar seems to play into that enduring myth of Afghanistan as the scourge of foreign adventures.

Armies and camp followers arrive, only to be blown away as if by the sandstorms of history, leaving no trace behind.

In this case, some Canadian projects, including the Dahla dam irrigation project and about 24 schools will survive, to be taken over by U.S. aid officials (at least until they leave).

Quite soon, of course, all these projects should be taken over by trained Afghans themselves. But what we are witnessing here is an abrupt end to an endeavour that so many keen military and aid-focused Canadians used to talk of as "the cause of our generation."

What survives?

Adding to the disappointment, volunteer organizations have also discovered that all that talk just a few weeks ago of a possible surge in Canadian aid spending has turned out to be a mirage.

Bev Oda has now confirmed that Canada is to provide only $100 million a year in development assistance over the next three years, which is less than half the $205 million Canada devoted last year to Afghan projects.

Surprise doesn't begin to describe the reaction in the voluntary sector.

News of the cutback is having an immediate and dramatic effect on volunteer aid efforts. For no one now has a clue what funding support, if any, they can count on from a foreign affairs hierarchy — notoriously risk averse at the best of times — that had encouraged private aid groups to go to Afghanistan and stick it out.

Without knowing where they stand, these groups simply can't plan ahead. Many worthy projects currently in the works will have to be put on hold.

Presumably more clarity over Canada's intentions will emerge at the NATO strategic summit in Lisbon this weekend, although one wonders how firm our now-stated intentions will seem to this organization, which is probably as confused as anyone over Canada's go/no-go policies.

NATO is not a natural body to scold others, of course, given its own wobbly record on Afghanistan and it will have every reason to be grateful to Harper for those critically important trainers that Canada has now pledged.

A total Canadian departure would have opened a serious fissure in that organization and encouraged others to look for the exit ramps.

Harper's thinking in all this is something one would love to know more about.

Contrary to the widespread characterization of him as a prime minister who ponders little about foreign affairs, my sense is that he has given this file very deep thought and that it has brought him to a dark place full of doubt about Afghanistan's chances and NATO's future there.

From what I've heard, from people in a position to know, Harper is an extraordinarily keen absorber of intelligence briefings and security files.

He also has developed a cold and skeptical mind when it comes to the can-do military optimism that has been at the core of so many of NATO's Afghan misadventures.

That's a subject I hope to address next. Unless, of course, we are overtaken by yet more surprises.