It is a full eight years since George Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner and pronounced that the United States and its allies had prevailed in Iraq. In fact, more soldiers and civilians died there after he spoke than had perished in the massive "shock and awe" operation before. But the laughter rang no less hollow last week when the Stars and Stripes was finally lowered in Baghdad and Bush's successor, Barack Obama, averred that the US left behind it a "sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq".
Wars start neatly enough, but ending them is a messier business, as Afghanistan now shows. British and American forces are due to pull out of that country by 2014. When they do, a new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) suggests, they will leave behind them a country where a "benign security environment" is unlikely to be achieved before 2020 at the earliest – and where parts of the country will never be brought fully under control.
We are in Afghanistan, we are told, to fight al-Qa'ida and keep the streets of Britain safe. That may have been true in 2001, or 2003, but is it now? When Osama bin Laden was finally hunted down, he was not being protected by the Afghan Taliban but by our ambiguous ally Pakistan. Few suppose that Afghanistan is now a major base for al-Qa'ida's terrorist operations.
A tacit consensus has arisen that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. The guerrillas of Pashtun always triumph in the end, we are told – though Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan might beg to differ. There is an unspoken acknowledgement that our young soldiers are dying in a refractory cause. Yet the real problem is that success in Afghanistan was possible only with a three-pronged military, political and economic strategy. The tragedy is that the first has been pursued without due emphasis on the other two legs – without which the stool will not stand.
We have won the battles, but our tactical successes have been strategically meaningless; the overwhelming firepower of the American and British forces see the Taliban off, but only to fight another day. The politics has proved too complex for us. Different warlords rule in different regions: the Uzbeks in the gas-rich industrial north; the Tajiks in north-eastern mountains of emeralds and lapis lazuli; the Farsi-speaking Shia in Herat who look to Iran; and Sunni Pashtuns in the south with their opium and banditry. And on the economy we have not done enough to have won hearts and minds; a survey commissioned by our Department for International Development found that a majority in Helmand, where British troops were then serving, regarded the Taliban as "completely trustworthy and fair", though they did not like the Pakistani Taliban.
Interestingly, the IISS report, researched over the past two years, is more upbeat. Many in the West have written off President Hamid Karzai as a long-time pawn of the CIA ruling over a government choked with corruption and nepotism, surviving only on Western aid. But the IISS – though acknowledging that the post-2014 authorities will remain rotten and inefficient – adjudges that the central government in Kabul has probably amassed sufficient power to ensure that it will hold when Nato pulls out. The police and army will be strong enough, especially if Western military training and funding continue. Karzai has enough institutional, economic and coercive power to impose a rough and ready control over the country. And, by and large, the neighbouring states will support the central state, rather than the ethnic groups they have traditionally seen as clients.
We have not made this easy. In announcing a date for the withdrawal of troops, and then talking about talking to the Taliban, we have boxed ourselves in. Why should the Taliban want to talk to people who have said they will be gone in two years, especially when they and their allies effectively control two-thirds of the territory? They will wait us out and talk to Karzai when we have gone.
What is essential is that we maintain, or even increase, our commitment to economic development. Aid has brought real progress for Afghanistan. Millions of children have been vaccinated against killer diseases. The number of trained health workers has jumped from 2,500 to 22,000. Child mortality has been halved since 2003 – a staggering achievement in such a war-torn place. Previously, one in 11 women died in pregnancy or childbirth; now that figure has fallen to one in 50. One of the great success stories of the past decade has been that the number of girls enrolling in school has, thanks to Western aid, risen from zero to more than 2.5 million now.
Of course, there must be fears that some of that will be at risk once the West leaves. Patriarchy is deeply engrained, for cultural as much as religious reasons – brutalising misogynistic tribal customs hold sway far beyond the Pashtun ethnic areas from which most Taliban come. But aid is the best way to combat that. Women teachers are now being trained by agencies such as Save the Children to keep girls in school once they reach puberty (when at present they are made to quit rather than be taught by men). A start has been made on that. But it means more aid, not less.
Wars have messy endings. That much is clear from Iraq. State-building in Afghanistan has proved to be a much more arduous, complex and costly task than those who authorised the invasion could have imagined, the IISS report says.
But the responsibilities of those who start wars are not discharged when the last soldier leaves. There are women teachers to train, community health workers to be instructed and Afghan civil servants to educate in transparent and fair methods of overseeing public administration. It will not be easy and there will be compromises to make. That is not a fiery peroration. But political reality is messy that way.