Canadians are confused about the UN-sanctioned, NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. What is its purpose? Waging war on terrorism, opium eradication, nation-building, protecting Afghan civil society from the strictures of the Taliban or simply holding on and hoping for a miracle amid the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq?

These and other questions continue to be the subject of a series of workshops held in Waterloo, Ontario.

Wilfrid Laurier University's Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, in partnership with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Academic Council on the United Nations System, is organizing a third attempt to come to grips with some of the many issues that challenge decision-makers.

Last December, 28 specialists – including Chris Alexander, Canada's former ambassador in Kabul who is now a UN Special Representative for Afghanistan; Ali A. Jalali, the reformist interior minister who served Afghanistan from 2003-2005; and Husain Haggani, author of Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military – met to debate broad strategic and security issues.

The workshop began with a presentation by William Maley of the Australian National University. His recent book Rescuing Afghanistan is basic reading for everyone who seeks to understand this complex country. Maley and 10 other participants have contributed essays to Afghanistan: Transition Under Threat which is being published this summer.

This week's workshop that begins today includes, among others, contributions from Lt.-Col. Simon Hetherington, who commanded the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar in 2006, and Ramesh Thakur, formerly of the UN University in Tokyo. The plan is to produce a report to be made available as a supplement to Afghanistan: Transition Under Threat.

What can Canadians expect to learn from such events? Foreign and defence policies have become major political issues and may well determine the outcome of the next election.

We need to examine our options on the basis of the best information available to us and the Waterloo conference will make an important contribution to a long overdue public debate.

Prior to 9/11, Canada had little interest in Afghanistan and when the Chrétien government opted to commit resources to rebuilding that country, it was widely seen as gesture to Washington after rejecting participation in George W. Bush's Iraq war.

Once on the ground in Afghanistan, successive Liberal governments embraced the 3D (development, diplomacy and defence) approach and Afghanistan became the focal point of Canadian external policy.

If Canada had stuck to its original commitment to Kabul, or opted for one of the calmer northern provinces, the mission would have attracted little attention and produced many fewer casualties.

Liberal defence minister Bill Graham announced the shift to Kandahar at our first Afghanistan conference in 2005. Knowledgeable members of the audience immediately recognized that this was a major policy change raising crucial questions about the handling of prisoners of war and the problems of co-ordinating our actions with the American offensive against the Taliban.

The shift to Kandahar pleased NATO and the Americans because the Canadians could provide well-trained and well-equipped combat forces.

The military welcomed the challenge though senior officers were well aware that sustaining such a force would stretch the army to its limits jeopardizing plans for future growth.

Recently the security situation in Kandahar has improved and new efforts are being made to extend the 3D or "whole of government" approach to parts of Kandahar.

Our current conference will provide an opportunity to assess the progress being made and the possibilities for the future.

Dr. Lee Windsor, deputy-director of the Gregg Centre at the University of New Brunswick – he is writing a history of the training, deployment and lessons learned by the 2nd battalion Royal Canadian Regiment now in Afghanistan – is optimistic about prospects for security and development.

Others are less certain.

With the Dutch scheduled to leave in 2008 and the Canadian mandate set to expire in February 2009, planning must begin to define the roles Canada and other NATO countries will assume in the years to follow.

Could a Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team stay in Kandahar without a Canadian combat group?

Is the Afghan army ready to play a larger role? Will another NATO country agree to sending a battlegroup to Kandahar?

These and other specific questions must be addressed without neglecting the larger issue of the direction of foreign and defence policy after Afghanistan.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.