Now that Canada is starting to focus on the end game in Afghanistan – i.e., how we get out in 2011 with our military and our dignity more or less intact – it’s useful to remember exactly how our soldiers were thrown into the hottest corner of the hottest civil war on the planet.

Proportional to our population, Canada has paid the highest price among all the Western nations now in Afghanistan, with almost all our war dead and injured coming in the three years since we shifted from a peacekeeping role in Kabul to leading a war-fighting mission in the province of Kandahar. With 117 dead and hundreds more maimed and injured as of this writing, not since the Korean conflict, more than half a century ago, have we fought and lost so much.

One would have thought the decision to make this investment, which will also cost Canadians more than $11 billion once it’s all said and done, would have been the subject of some debate in Parliament, perhaps even a vote of some sort. No. Instead, four years ago, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was nervously wringing its hands over his predecessor’s refusal to join the Americans in the bloody misadventure in Iraq, and was casting about for some way to appease the Bush administration.

In marched the dashing new military chief Rick Hillier with a daring plan to raise the profile of Canada’s troops in Kandahar. According to The Unexpected War: Canada and Afghanistan, the comprehensive book on the topic by Eugene Lang and Janice Gross Stein, the Martin Liberals swallowed the bait set by a general whose allegiance has always tended south. According to then-Defence Minister John McCallum, “They [the military leadership] were very cosy with the Americans and liked the idea of us being in combat, rather than peacekeeping.”

The episode exemplified the weakness of the two-year Martin government – which is now largely unremembered and irrelevant to our history but for this one momentous decision made and executed in secret. Canadians overwhelmingly supported the decision not to join George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but we have essentially aided in that conflict over the last three years by allowing the U.S. to shift troops and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq.

And therein lies our present difficulty. After the fact, we were sold on the Afghan mission with stirring calls to help rebuild a war-torn country and to introduce a minimum of human rights, especially for women in the strict Islamic nation. This was supposed to help forestall the return of the Taliban and remove Afghanistan as a staging ground for terrorism.

All this would have been so much easier done in the years immediately following the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001, when there was more goodwill toward the West and an eagerness to accept help to rebuild the country. Instead, just as they did in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal, the Americans cut and run, their eyes on a bigger prize. That’s why the Taliban insurgency was able to ramp up just as Canadian soldiers were taking over on their home turf of Kandahar.

Three years later, is Afghanistan more stable? Is the Taliban less of a threat? Are the Afghan people more prosperous, better educated or well fed? Do Afghan women enjoy their right to lead full, independent lives?

We know the answers. The Taliban are stronger than ever, and this summer already threatens to be the deadliest for our troops. Many Afghanis are starving. Observers tell stories of children eating mud to forestall their hunger pains. Not surprisingly, many have turned to opium cultivation; Afghanistan now produces more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium. We have yet to see hardly any of the promised investment in health and education.

And the fate of Afghan women? The Karzai government’s recent endorsement of a harsh new law tells us how much success the West has had in promoting women’s rights. The law, a new family code for Afghanistan’s Shia minority, eliminates a woman’s right to go anywhere without her husband’s permission, automatically grants the husband custody of children in the event of divorce and explicitly removes a wife’s right to refuse sex, in effect legalizing marital rape.

Despite this tale of hubris, failure and tragedy, we also have to ask ourselves what is likely to be the outcome should we abandon the country completely after the scheduled end to the Kandahar mission in 2011.

For those who think we should never have been in Afghanistan – and I used to be one of them – we need to ask ourselves what exactly would be the political outcome here should another terror attack come from the fanatics still moving between that country and neighbouring Pakistan. Just as the far right is on the retreat in the U.S, and the rule of law making a return after years of secret prisons and torture, another terror attack could seriously help the domestic right-wing fanatics in the U.S. and Canada.

Ironically, this will come just as the U.S., under the Obama administration, is finally committing the needed resources to ensure security and development to the country. Only by eliminating hunger and promoting economic development can we ever hope for stability in Afghanistan. We can only hope it isn’t too late.

The sad fact is that Afghanistan needs us now more than ever, just at the moment when our ability and will to help is waning.