The Tories say Afghanistan should be stable enough to handle its own security by 2011 - a view reiterated late Thursday by a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
But opposition parties pounced on far less cheerful assessments of the situation from two leading authorities: Canada's top soldier and the head of NATO.
Gen. Rick Hillier declared it will probably take "10 years or so" for the Afghan army to meet its security demands - and NATO's secretary-general suggested it could take far longer than that.
The opposition accused Harper of ignoring his own military experts and allies because the truth makes him politically uncomfortable.
How does the government respond to the glaring contradictions, they fall back on the "panel" for cover:
"This government has established an independent commission to study the issue and provide advice to this government," Tory House leader Peter Van Loan replied when pressed on the matter.
"It's headed up by the former deputy prime minister John Manley. We anticipate a report to this House which will give the House an opportunity to vote on the best course forward."
Then Sandra Buckler offers what amounts to an admission that the "panel" work is symbolic political posturing:
"Building up the capacity of the Afghan people so that they can defend their own sovereignty has always been our goal and we know this will not happen overnight," said Harper's communications director, Sandra Buckler.
"However, our Government believes that this objective should be achievable by 2011."
All the mixed messages form a cowardly compromise of supposed principles, to minimize political consequence. How can the government offer a timeline on the one hand, then use the "panel" to sidestep any discussion on future plans? How can the government offer 2011, when their own military, not to mention NATO, offers an opinion that shows no relationship to their presentation to Canadians?
The government is playing a dangerous dance, because there is no coherence in the message. All the efforts to take Afghanistan off the table will backfire if the government looks manipulative and withholds basic truths for self interest. There is a clear opportunity here for the opposition to peel off the "panel" as a convenient rebuttal, reveal it for the rubber stamp distraction that it is, through the Conservatives own words. Also, the logic chasm between the military opinion and the government is a gift to the opposition.
As an aside, Allan Gregg foreshadowed the results of the newest Decima poll by saying the Conservative momentum in Quebec may be stalling due to Afghanistan. I doubt this muddled message will improve fortunes.