This must be part of what is meant by the term "the fog of war." One day Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor muses publicly that the Taliban cannot be beaten militarily, and the next he ships a half-dozen more tanks to the region.
It's no wonder federal NDP leader Jack Layton felt the only way to cut through the murk was with the pointy end of a sharp slogan: "Let's bring the troops home."
While he's created a bit of haze himself by being too vague on the details of how a withdrawal could be executed, the slogan he's selling is more complex than meets the eye.
"It is really a banner demand," says Steven Staples of the Polaris Institute. "The demand to withdraw is an expression of the frustration about the mission on the ground and the intransigence of the federal government. If the government were to shift strategy in a meaningful way, then many of us would change our position."
Indeed, while the withdrawal call has dislodged the debate from the Harper headlock, what the NDP seems to be saying if you parse its position, is that Canadian troops shouldn't actually leave Afghanistan at all. They just ought to be doing other things.
"We want to effectively help Afghanistan, but the war-making focus is totally unbalanced," says NDP defence and peace advocacy critic Dawn Black. "We know that defence is part of stabilizing the situation, but nowhere near enough is being done on poverty, peace or human rights."
While many dismiss mission shift as political posturing and completely unrealistic, Staples doesn't. He co-authored a recent study showing that Canada is taking more casualties than any of the other 37 countries in Afghanistan except the U.S.
Other NATO countries, he says, are ensconced in the relative safety of Kabul. For example, Germany's force is about the same size as Canada's and similarly equipped, but solely does peace and support operations. Why can't Canada, he wonders, rotate out of southern Afghanistan, where our troops are locked in a U.S.-generated counterinsurgency operation?
"Canada seems to tie itself in knots worrying about its commitments to NATO. What about NATO's commitment to Canada?" he asks.
Indeed, it's worth remembering that the U.S. has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan. And in another war, Iraq (remember that one?), Spain withdrew its force altogether, as did tiny Honduras. But if anything has elicited more venom than Layton's withdrawal talk, its his call to negotiate with the Taliban.
Some context here. Afghan-Canadian scholar Seddiq Weera, currently on the ground in the region as a member of the Afghan government's Independent National Commission on Strengthening Peace in Afghanistan, told NOW in June that in talking to insurgents, he's discovered they have a range of motives.
"I put the question to them: "What will it take for all of you to return and lead peaceful lives?' And that was how I found out there are issues that can be settled within the current system."
The Afghan government is already in the process of offering amnesty to disaffected Taliban members. No mystery there. As Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, said a few years back, "Our problem is mainly with the top Taliban, who may number no more than 150.'
And given the fact that Karzai, who addressed the House of Commons on September 22, was once Taliban himself, are negotiations really beyond the pale?
"We can't keep preaching to other countries in conflict about the need to negotiate and then, when we find ourselves in conflict, say we can't negotiate," says Royal Military College prof Walter Dorn.
Negotiating isn't an idea put forward only by wimpy peaceniks and armchair generals. It's smart military strategy considering that many Afghans fighting NATO troops in the south have grievances with the government but are not hardcore Taliban.
"The Taliban is an amorphous group," says Staples. "The counterinsurgency binds them, but peace talks would draw moderate fighters into the process."
Says Ernie Regehr of the peace group Project Ploughshares, "It's the rule rather than the exception that governments that have lost control of part of the country eventually negotiate." Citing the recent example of Uganda's peace talks with rebels in the north, Regehr says that while it's not pretty, "elected governments ultimately have to talk with groups that have done heinous things."
But does NATO have the credibility in the region to facilitate negotiations? Many say no. "How can NATO justify intervening so far from the North Atlantic region?" asks David Cortright, president of Fourth Freedom Forum, an American think tank studying alternatives to military force to resolve conflicts. "NATO is now an adjunct to U.S. foreign policy. This is a huge mistake."
Armed conflict transformation expert and University of Western Ontario prof Peter Langille agrees. "NATO isn't the appropriate tool for policing the rougher edges. It's an all-white, wealthy and, except for Turkey, all-Christian force."
While Langille doesn't think Canada could pull out of Afghanistan now without political repercussions from the U.S. Republican administration, he does agree that the mission has to be done differently.
"If you aren't seen as belligerent, you can conduct robust operations as long as you are doing a decent job on the diplomacy and development fronts," he says.
Dorn, in New York writing a report for the UN's peacekeeping committee, thinks the UN should be taking the lead role in Afghanistan. "Many countries in the developing world, like India and Pakistan, want to deploy in UN missions. This gets around NATO reluctance and troop shortages," he says.
While Dorn doesn't like talk of pull-outs, he doesn't actually sound much different from Layton. "We need a radically new mission, and to be very clear that it is a radically new mission. Right now it looks like we are there to take territory."
He believes a more narrowly defined UN mission would create areas of success that could be held up as models to the Afghan population.
"We need to take areas that we know we can secure and do a really good job there and be there for 10 to 20 years," he says. "Right now we're creating more problems than we're solving."
It's this last fact that Staples says underlines the strategic importance of calling for troop withdrawal.
"The treatment is worse than the disease," he says. "Unless things change, we have no alternative but to call for a withdrawal."