by Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang

(Viking Canada, 304 pages, $35 hardcover)

In July 2002, not long after he became Canada's defence minister, John McCallum visited Kabul, travelling about in a Romanian military vehicle. The Canadian troops were weeks from going home after a six-month rotation and their vehicles had already been shipped home.

The mission had been relatively uneventful, but four Canadians had been killed when an U.S. reservist dropped a laser-guided bomb on them. Canada had fulfilled its obligations, however, and was ending its involvement in Afghanistan.

But then in early 2003, as the United States prepared to invade Iraq, it needed to reduce its commitments in Afghanistan. Canada agreed to take command of the International Security Assistance Force, a commitment that required more than 2,000 troops for 12 months. So it returned to Afghanistan. That mission suffered three deaths.

As it ended in 2004, Canada agreed next to participate in the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) program established in Afghanistan by the United Nations late in 2001. A small military force was to support a host of development programs. The Canadians were sent to Kandahar -- home of the Taliban, but at that time relatively peaceful.

The reconstruction program fit perfectly with Ottawa's new 3D policy -- defence, diplomacy, development -- for international involvement. But as Kandahar became increasingly violent, defence priorities began to outweigh diplomacy and development.

And according to authors Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, Canada "slipped into war in Afghanistan, step by step, incrementally, without understanding that it was going to war, until it woke up to mounting casualties and grim battles."

In The Unexpected War, this military narrative is in the background. The authors focus instead on Ottawa's decision-making and policy development. Stein is director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. Lang is a retired chief of staff to McCallum and to Bill Graham, another Liberal defence minister. Their book is analytical and highly critical.

"Peacekeeping" in the 21st century has changed at a very basic level, the authors say, and Afghanistan sets an example for future missions focusing on "peace building."

Understanding our Afghan policy, they assert, is essential to adapting to this change.

According to the authors, Canada is doing almost everything wrong -- with the exception of the performance by our troops. And the problem, they say, lies with the decision-making process in Ottawa.

McCallum, for example, became defence minister due to the Adscam scandal and the ongoing Liberal leadership quarrel between Jean Chr?tien and Paul Martin. The previous minister, Art Eggleton, had been dismissed for questionable contracting practices in an attempt to counter attacks regarding Adscam. His replacement could not be an MP suspected of supporting the Martin leadership camp, so the job fell to a surprised McCallum, an economist who admits he knew nothing about the military.

Personality was another factor in the bad decision-making. As prime minister, Martin earned the moniker "Mr. Dithers" and, according to the authors, "this style led to a sclerotic, constipated decision-making process that is still the stuff of legend in Ottawa."

Into this vacuum strode General Rick Hillier, new chief of the defence staff and a man who was intelligent, articulate and accustomed to the forceful decision-making process of the military.

The situation "unbalanced the relationship between civilian and military," Stein and Lang say. The tail was now wagging the dog.

Canada's role in Afghanistan was also influenced by the Ottawa-Washington nexus. Our commitment there was seen as balancing our refusal to join the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence program.

The problem, Stein and Lang observe, is that Canada could have refused all three initiatives, not just two of them.

"We grossly overstate our importance in Washington. They really don't care much about us," the authors say.

Most significantly, the book asserts, our 3D policy and our new model of peace building are hindered by cultural differences -- not between the Pashto people of Kandahar province and Canadian troops, but among our own institutions. The 3D approach requires co-operation by the Canadian Forces, Department of Foreign Affairs and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). But these three have different mandates, outlooks and operating procedures. They have never been asked to work in concert before.

Resolving "the endless bickering and the institutional quarrels" is the key to the future, the authors say. They also conclude that only a long-term commitment will have an impact on Afghanistan's development. A short-term, incremental commitment offers no solution while continuing to put Canadian lives at risk.

Unfortunately, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper remains wedded to short-term solutions. In 2006 Canada's mission to Afghanistan was extended to 2009 and early in 2008 that extension was extended to 2011. It would seem that the government and the bureaucracy in Ottawa have not read this book.