Let's be clear, Canada is still at war in Afghanistan

Our military training mission in Afghanistan is crucial if the country is to stand on its feet and Western forces are to leave in 2014. But the Taliban knows this too, Brian Stewart writes.

Combat may be over, but our training mission makes us targets of the Taliban

For years, Canadians have been puzzled by government statements about our real role in the Afghanistan war. So it's no wonder we're still confused about the nature of our large training mission still over there.

We were shocked last week when a Canadian military trainer was killed in an ambush in Kabul. There was political and media confusion over whether this job was to have been quite risky, or generally low-risk.

The larger point, however, seems not yet grasped. For the reality is that while Canada's military pulled out of a costly, direct combat role this summer, it is now plunging even deeper into the real heart of the war.

Still, the confusion over this is understandable, and you will find an excellent explanation for it in a remarkable new book, The Savage War: the Untold Battles of Afghanistan by veteran Canadian Press correspondent Murray Brewster, who captures the extraordinary mind-deadening effect on public consciousness of years of spin control by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his PMO.

"The Harper Government had done everything it could to shove Afghanistan off the public agenda and it succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams," Brewster writes. "A sort of collective amnesia took hold, a grey, foggy recollection. People knew the war was coming to an end, they just didn't know how or when."

It was in this fog that Harper went to the Lisbon summit on Afghanistan last year to promise a post-combat training mission in as bland a manner as his writers could devise.

Senior Canadian officers were astonished to see the next phase of Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan merely mentioned, as if in passing, within a sentence promising different forms of future aid.

Some officers still think Harper lost an opportunity to win big kudos within NATO for what Canada was about to do — as well as to brace Canadians for what was to come, including the obvious risks.

The result was that the full scope of the training mission was never much discussed, let alone debated in Parliament, nor did it feature in the spring election. The media, and the country, moved on.

The pointy end

But let's be clear. This training mission is enormously important to NATO and it is putting Canada in a vital place in the war there over the next three years.

The CBC's Brian Stewart, with Canadian military trainers at a facility near Kabul in 2008. Their role has suddenly become much more dangerous.

The number one priority for NATO right now is training. Specifically to complete the training of a 350,000-strong Afghan army and a large, reformed police force; and to make sure both are good enough to take over in the battle against insurgents by 2014, when we, along with all the European countries and the U.S., want out for good.

Consider where this puts Canada. Our 1,000 or so military and police trainers and their support teams stand in second place in this priority mission, right behind the Americans. By next year, we will make up 20 per cent of the entire training mission, maybe more if our cash-strapped European allies bail out.

Canada is highly regarded as a source of military trainers, and this effort gives us extra heft. It has also helped place Canadian Major-Gen. Michael Day in overall charge of the army component of the training.

As he put it recently: "I don't want to diminish for a second what we've been doing for 10 years down South" in Kandahar. "It was an incredible accomplishment. But this is where the campaign will be won or lost."

A target for the Taliban

Of course, if NATO knows this, all the insurgent leaders know it as well, which is why no Canadian should take the risks of this mission lightly.

Guerrilla commanders, often headquartered in Pakistan, are fully aware they need to drive out NATO trainers, Canadians certainly included, before Afghan security forces grow any stronger.

They don't want to face a resilient national Afghan army after NATO leaves, nor probably do their shadowy Pakistan backers want to see this either.

This explains why insurgents have been launching fierce, often suicidal, attacks in recent months against training and command facilities, including some right inside Kabul.

It is also why NATO troops are increasingly on guard against guerrilla infiltrators and rogue sympathizers in Afghan uniforms, like the ones behind the killing of three Australian trainers last week.

In strict tactical terms, the insurgents have little option but to try to damage these training efforts as the pace of their reforms picks up.

Still at war

The Taliban, for example, cannot like the fact that the Afghan army is receiving 6,000 to 8,000 recruits a month, enough to more than make up for the chronic desertion rates. At the same time, the ranks of Afghan army officers and non-commissioned officers has soared and will soon hit 86,000.

Within a year, the Afghan army will reach 352,000, an achievement I never imagined when I viewed training sites there just a few years ago.

Part of the explanation is much better conditions. In a still largely illiterate nation, some 100,000 recruits have now been through literacy training, which, along with better pay, tends to attract a more promising class of soldier.

The Canadian effort is emphasizing key support elements that have long been missing in the past — better logistics, communications, medical services and top officer training as well as the creation of the ongoing departments needed to sustain a military.

These are all things that are vital for NATO to "train its way out" and, hopefully, our camp defences and the solid professionalism of our trainers will keep casualties low, as I believe they will.

But given that our role is critical to the possible success of the entire NATO engagement, the three years remaining will be highly challenging and often tense.

We are not just at war, we are still on the inside of one and need to remember this far more often than we do.