Visiting Canadian troops and various Afghan social and political representatives in Kandahar and Kabul in 2010, I had the opportunity to see first hand the first-rate professionalism, dedication and determination of the Canadian men and women serving there, both at the main base at Kandahar Airfield, and in several smaller sites. They were, and are, some of the very best examples that Canada as a nation has to offer, as they sought to combat the Taliban and other opposition forces, while trying to help bring political freedoms, social rights and economic development to the population of Kandahar province and to Afghanistan generally. I begin this blog with that very simple and clear statement, because the rest of the piece about Afghanistan is much more about recognizing the limits of Western states’ interests than about such admirable individual character traits.

In 2001-2002, the US and NATO forces did not go into Afghanistan for human rights, women’s rights, children’s educational opportunities, or for democracy-promotion.  The United Nations had been there for those reasons before the Taliban and had stayed there during their rule; but after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the 1980s neither Washington D.C., London, Paris, Berlin, Ottawa or any other NATO state had shown any interest in Afghanistan or its population’s situation until the 9/11 attacks.

A decade later, in 2012 the US and its NATO allies are searching for a respectable exit from their ‘longest war’, and in that process they are lowering the bar of expectations as much as possible in order to be able to declare success to their war-weary and economically strained publics. This is the Western search for an outcome that can be considered as “Afghan good-enough”. The end game of the NATO mission in that much-troubled country now is very much in sight, and the prospects for enduring stability and security are, at their most optimistic, mixed. Some observers argue, since those were notional goals that never were achieved in practice except in very limited areas of the country, the scenarios for post-2014 Afghanistan range from more of the present – albeit limited – violence, to worse.

At the May, 2012 NATO leaders’ summit in Chicago, the talk was all about ‘responsibly winding down’ the alliance’s mission, with several member states declaring that their troops would be withdrawn entirely by the end of the year. Only two years before, all discussions about building the Afghan National Security Forces (the ANSF, composed chiefly of the Afghan National Army or ANA, and Afghan National Police or ANP) cited a target figure of 352,000 personnel as the force size required to take, and keep, control of the country after a NATO withdrawal. In Chicago, that figure was dropped by a third to 228,500 – not on the basis of a new, post-surge strategic reassessment of the security facts on the ground, but because the higher total would cost an estimated $6.1 billion per year while Western leaders had pegged their maximum post-2014 financial support at $4.0 billion a year for ten years. And that target amount could not be guaranteed, since it would depend on annual approvals by Congress and other national legislatures.

In 2010 again, I met several veteran battle-hardened, deeply impressive Afghan military representatives. There was no question about their will to fight, or their personal capacity to do so. However, an April 2012 US Defense Department report observed that none of the 47 Afghan Ministry of Defense offices were capable of conducting fully autonomous operations, while 5 of those – including Ground Forces Command and the Afghan Air Force – were described as unable to accomplish their missions. None of the Army’s field or headquarters units were believed to be able to operate independently, and some not even with Western military advisors. This, after over a decade of Western training and at least $35 billion in Western funding. The situation of the ANP in 2010 was much worse, and it remains so in 2012 – they are severely under-funded, under-equipped, under-trained, and extremely vulnerable as they live and work in small groups across the rugged Afghan countryside. Corruption at all levels, rampant drug use, and high levels of illiteracy only serve to make their conditions worse.

So, what are US and other NATO leaders’ goals and objectives for Afghanistan coming out of Chicago?  A functioning democratic government, embedded human rights and women’s rights, assured access to schooling for all girls and boys, and all of this under the lawful governance of a respected and elected leadership? These were the larger goals that motivated the dedicated soldiers and civilians who I was fortunate enough to meet and spoke with in Kandahar. Instead, in Chicago President Obama’s National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, described their goal as “an Afghanistan that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have unimpeded access”, and with an ANSF that can “provide for that modicum of security”.  Access, yes; but preferably not unimpeded, and at least a modicum of security. British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier spoke of “doing the job” in Afghanistan – meaning in his case, leaving that country “not being a haven for terror”. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper set the same, core and very basic – and very Western security-oriented – goal.

Before visiting Kandahar, I would make the case in public lectures that the West had not gone into Afghanistan “for” Afghans, but strictly for their own narrow, national security reasons; and that these would determine the conditions of their withdrawal. This was never intended as a rebuke, but simply as a reality check. All of the other talk about accomplishing long-term Afghan nation building and social transformation, in the end, would be of no more than secondary importance. Talking to Afghan interpreters working for ISAF, and to Afghan civil society representatives, I found that they saw their current Western employers and donors in the same light – they felt that a real change could only be achieved over a 40-50 years, multi-generational time frame. They did not think that their Western allies and especially publics fully recognized this, or that they would be able to make such a commitment even if they did. Those Afghans appreciated their situation accurately, in the end. Presumably too, so did, and do, the Taliban and the various other anti-Western government factions throughout Afghanistan. That is Afghan good-enough in 2012-14.

Alistair Edgar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, the Executive Director of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), and Co-Director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.