Stephen Harper's weekend comments about Afghanistan sparked some big headlines. But many stories emphasized the wrong part of what he said.
"We are not ever going to defeat the insurgency," the PM said on U.S. TV. Domestic critics quickly detected defeatism, or an about-face, or, you know, something bad somehow.
They're wrong. There's nothing new there. In May 2006, for example, then-foreign-minister Peter MacKay told a Senate committee that he did not expect a "time where it's like the last spike in the Canadian railroad, where we'll be able to say, 'There, a surrender is in place.'"
A fuller look at Harper's weekend comment, in a CNN interview, shows consistency with such previous statements: "We're not going to win this war just by staying ... Ultimately the source of authority in Afghanistan has to be perceived as being indigenous. If it's perceived as being foreign ... it will always have a significant degree of opposition."
This transparent and unassailable logic is not unique to Canada. President Barack Obama said recently that in Afghanistan victory will never come "solely through military means."
So what some were pleased to see as an admission of defeat is in fact simple realism about the nature of counter-insurgency.
At least one parent of a killed Canadian soldier, too, said Harper's comment sounded like defeatism. With great respect to that gentleman and others in comparable circumstances, we disagree. Our soldiers are there, and know they are there, not to accept the surrender of the last insurgent but to buy time for the development of robust indigenous institutions, civil and military.
The more significant part of what Harper said, we believe, has to do with how democratic Afghanistan will be. Like Obama recently, Harper is now lowering the bar on that test of allied success. Where previous rhetoric pounded its chest about "establishing democracy," there's a new pragmatism now.
"The best we can do," Harper told The Wall Street Journal, "is train the Afghans so that they are able to manage the insurgency themselves and create, not a Western liberal democracy ... but at least a government that has some democratic and rule-of-law norms."
Canadians will not greet that reduced goal with enthusiasm. But evidently "some democratic and rule-of-law norms" are the best we can hope for.