For months, perhaps years, we have heard how the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating.

The spread of corruption, the return of the Taliban, the ineptitude of the police, the mounting violence, as we saw again yesterday — all suggest a war that seems unwinnable in a country that seems ungovernable.

Last weekend, in Munich, representatives of NATO met to discuss the Afghan war, which has been going on since the fall of 2001.

The United States sent its vice-president, its secretary of state and its newly-appointed special envoy to the region, the highly-esteemed former ambassador, Richard Holbrooke.

How bad are things? This is how Holbrooke put it: “Let’s not kid ourselves: The task ahead of us is far, far more difficult than anything that has been said this morning. I have never, in my experience in the U.S.

government that started in Vietnam, ever seen anything as difficult as the situation that confronts the countries involved in Afghanistan and Pakistan at this point. We’ve only scratched the surface.”

Holbrooke noted, with disdain, the members of NATO who pledge help and deliver none. In the distribution of foreign assistance, he lamented that he has “never remotely seen anything like the mess we’ve inherited.” On the whole, he said, the challenge in Afghanistan is “tougher than Iraq.”

(For these references, I am indebted to my colleague, Paul Wells of Maclean’s, the only Canadian journalist to cover the conference. He has posted some of the proceedings on his blog).

What Holbrooke says is supported by Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist and author who has written widely on Afghan­istan. In Descent Into Chaos, he says Iraq is a sideshow. Afghanistan is the home of the Islamic insurgency, and we’re losing — though he adds that it isn’t too late.

And what about Canada, which plans to leave Afghanistan in 2011? Defence Minister Peter Mac-Kay, Canada’s lone representative at the conference, offered a few platitudes, but concluded, “the Alliance has achieved notable successes in Afghan­istan.”

He said, though, that “we still have a long way to go.” It neatly sets up the critical question for Canada as the Americans, who are sending more troops to Afghanistan, ask us to reconsider our departure.

Will we note the successes, declare victory and leave? Or will we acknowledge the failures, fear defeat, and stay?

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