Ed Miliband used his first visit to Afghanistan yesterday to emphasise the importance of rebuilding the nation, as a devastating new report revealed that chaos surrounding infrastructure projects were hindering efforts to win hearts and minds in the country.
The Labour leader stressed his commitment to the mission in Afghanistan during a swift visit to the country this weekend, claiming that "a more stable Afghanistan will lead to a more safe Britain".
Mr Miliband, in Kabul and Nad-e' Ali with the shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, and shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, said Labour backed the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. He told reporters: "It is right that this is not a war without end."
But the high-profile trip coincided with the publication of a damning assessment of the billions being spent on roads, bridges and key buildings. The report says the efforts are at risk because of poor planning, inadequate supervision and the inability of local leaders to keep them going.
The devastating assessment, by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), Major General Arnold Fields, highlights serious failings in US Department of Defence's plans to provide facilities for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and dozens of development projects funded by military commanders. The absence of a long-term building plan for spending $11.4bn (£7.2bn) on training centres for Afghan forces puts the programme "at risk for not meeting ANSF strategic and operational needs".
Details of the faltering attempts to rebuild Afghanistan following almost a decade of conflict came amid another upsurge in Taliban violence, with the deputy governor of Kandahar killed in a suicide attack.
Last year saw a threefold rise in assassinations, up from seven a week to an average of 21 between June and September. Casualties continue to rise, with the 711 foreign troops killed in Afghanistan in 2010 making it the bloodiest year since the fighting began.
But serious concerns remain about the true state of readiness of the Afghan army and police, who are due to start taking over responsibility for some parts of the country this year. The report states that "security continues to affect the sustainability of Afghan infrastructure projects".
Almost 27,000 Afghan soldiers – a third of the reported total – are not even present for duty. Only 2.24 per cent of Afghan National Police recruits are literate, half the previous estimate of 4.5 per cent, according to the report. The situation is even worse in the Afghan National Civil Order Police, Afghanistan's elite police unit.
But there is some encouraging news, with Taliban fighters approaching local authorities throughout Afghanistan "to express their willingness to disarm and reintegrate". Sigar reports that "645 individuals claiming to be militants have enrolled in the APRP [Afghanistan peace and reconciliation programme] as of 31 December 2010".
Although Sigar claims the UN sees the initial signs of reintegration efforts as promising, it is too early to conclude that this indicates a significant trend. It cites US defence officials warning that reintegration of ex-Taliban fighters "will fail without greater awareness" among government officials and the military. Provincial authorities have "repeatedly lost interest in pursuing individual cases of reintegration... leaving reintegrees without support and causing many reintegrees to return to the fight".
Time is fast running out for coalition forces under increasing pressure to enable a politically driven withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014. The outlook remains bleak, with levels of violence at their highest since the war began. General David Petraeus, the US head of Nato troops in Afghanistan, warned on Tuesday: "There is much hard work to be done in 2011 and, as always in Afghanistan, the way ahead will be difficult."