A continued presence in Afghanistan is very unlikely to win the federal Conservative government new converts, but it could very well cause the Conservatives to lose the next election. So the status quo is probably not an option for the government.

A cynic – or a student of public opinion – might have predicted that Canada’s Afghanistan mission was politically doomed from the start.

Since Lester Pearson was awarded the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, Canadians have had a 50-year love affair with their self-image as “honest brokers,” “a middle power,” and (the most prized and emotionally charged of all) “peacekeepers.” Launching a combat mission in a country that posed neither a tangible threat nor opportunity for Canada and Canadians simply did not resonate with that self-image – indeed, the very act of fighting affronts our notion of Canada as “the peaceable kingdom.”

Except for professing to be “a hockey nut,” Stephen Harper has never been one to concern himself unduly with the sensibilities of national identity. So initially, he appeared to be quite ready to fly in the face of public opinion and boldly support Canada’s involvement in the war. In one of his first acts as prime minister, he forced a vote in the Commons (and exposed a deep division in his Liberal opponents’ ranks) to extend the mission from 2007 until 2009.

He vowed not “to cut and run,” claiming that doing so would not only undermine the security and morale of our troops but that it would also damage Canada’s reputation in the global theatre. When pressed, early on, about the possibility of extending our term, he bluntly declared that development, human rights and the war on terror did not conform to “artificial deadlines.”

More recently, however, his tone has been decidedly different. First, he offered a rare accommodation that the mission would only be extended after a satisfactory vote in the House of Commons. Now, his minister of national defence, Gordon O’Connor, is hinting that it may only be a matter of months before the troops of the much-vaunted Van Doos of Quebec are out of the line of fire and instead recede into a “mentoring” role to the Afghan army, who will take their place.

Could it be that a prime minister who seems congenitally unable to back down on matters of principle is ready to eat his words and “cut and run” on the Canadian mission?

Perhaps, but based on past performance, I doubt it.

In fact, this seeming change of heart (or lack of stomach) seems to follow a pattern that the Harper government follows when it is caught squarely on the wrong side of public opinion.

Much like when it found itself blindsided by the rapid rise in alarm over the environment last winter, the Conservative government’s first instinct is to continue to defend the indefensible. When it becomes abundantly clear that a hard-line stance is politically untenable, it then attempts to appear less truculent, extreme and dogmatic by moderating its rhetoric and language on the issue. Under this cover, it then reverts to a tactic that is highly unusual in Canadian politics — rather than bend with the prevailing winds of public opinion, it actually tries to change them.

In lock-step with this public softening of his position on Afghanistan, Harper and O’Connor have been barnstorming the country, selling Canadians on the (more general) merits of military activity.

Whether it’s protecting our sovereignty in the Arctic by purchasing new ships, re-opening a mothballed defence college in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. or expanding the Bagotville Canadian Forces Base in the Saguenay, the intent is clear: The prime minster and his colleagues are trying to blunt the antipathy certain groups (principally Quebecers, women and young people) have for them because of Afghanistan, by making them feel more connected to the army, and to defence initiatives more broadly.

The important signal here for the Afghan mission is that the Conservatives are not trying to court favour with Quebecers through dairy subsidies or more day-care spaces, but by giving the defence establishment a higher profile and meaning in the province.

Given an anti-military bias in Quebec that goes back to the conscription crisis of 1917, this is going to be a hard sell, but the very fact that Harper and his colleagues are making the pitch suggests that they are not prepared to give up on the Afghanistan mission any time soon.

But the hard political reality remains: Without the 10 Quebec seats the Conservatives won in 2006, they would still be in opposition; and without making inroads into Canada’s major urban centres — and the young, well-educated and female constituencies that make up such a big part of metropolitan Canada — majority government will never be theirs. From this perspective, a continued presence in Afghanistan is very unlikely to win them new converts, but it could very well cause them to lose the next election.

So the status quo is probably not an option for the government.

The heart of the dilemma that Harper — or, for that matter, any prime minister — faces when it comes to Canada’s military presence abroad is that public attitudes have not caught up to the changing realities of global conflict.

Perhaps to our credit, we aspire not be a world military (or for that matter, even an economic) power, but moral leaders, changing the world through examples of good works.

Politically, therefore, the safest course would be to pull our troops back from the danger zone of Afghanistan’s southern provinces after 2009 and have them tackle development and humanitarian work, building schools, infrastructure and the like. This would find greater public acceptance and conform more closely to Canadians’ self-image as “peacekeepers.”

The problem with this aspect of our identity is that in a time of asymmetrical war, where as often as not our military will be engaged by local insurgencies and not state forces, our enemies harbour no such delusions about their moral role. Indeed, for the Taliban, the most effective way to destabilize Afghanistan is to attack development and humanitarian projects like schools and infrastructure under construction. We may choose not to engage them, but this new type of enemy will offer us no such guarantee in return.

Indeed, there is an argument that in modern day conflict, peacekeeping has become an anachronism. The closest we can come is peace “making,” and this invariably involves physical force and combat.

If this is the case, the question then becomes not so much what is the future of the Afghanistan mission but what is the future of Canada’s military?

And if having a military is essential to having a role in international affairs, and if Canadians truly believe that we can be moral leaders, then Harper is probably right to try to paddle against the tide of public opinion.

My guess is that he is under no illusion that the current against him on this issue is very strong, and if he is to get to his desired destination he may well have to indulge in the same kind of portaging that he is doing now.

Allan Gregg is an independent political analyst and consultant who can be reached at allangregg@allangregg.com.