Richard Youngs: The last thing Afghans need is for us to give up on them

We should not presume to question Afghans' aspirations for democracy

Amidst alleged endemic fraud, violence, and general confusion, Afghanistan's second Presidential election crawled to completion. Two weeks on and votes are still being counted. The 41 contenders for the Presidency have been seemingly whittled down to the incumbent Hamid Karzai and the charismatic former Foreign Affairs Minister, Abdullah Abdullah. Whichever man eventually wins the election, their mandate will be questionable.

As in Iraq, voters have been segmented and corralled along lines of geography, religion and patronage meaning millions will be left alienated regardless of the outcome. Among commentators there seems agreement that the Western model of nation-building stands little chance of succeeding in this benighted country and the international community should narrow its mission into a set of more modest and feasible aims.

This now-standard line of reasoning includes a healthy dose of realism provoked by a steady stream of military deaths and political disappointment magnified by this week's election. In reality this line has already been pre-empted on the ground with Nato objectives focussed solely on "tying down" insurgents and laying the ground work for withdrawal – building strong and accountable state institutions is simply not the priority.

If proof were needed, the limited amount of European funding going to Afghanistan hardly represents an over-weaning effort to sow the seeds of democracy and development. Of European donors, only the UK, Germany and the European Commission have given over €100m a year in development aid to Afghanistan. Others give less than they do to small states in Africa or Latin America.

Europe is not doing much state-building in Afghanistan. Capacity building is something widely talked about but narrowly implemented. Nato's commitment to building an ideal Afghan state is for the most part rhetorical. European and US troops may have built and at times heroically secured the foundations for the national election but the trend is towards small strike operations to pin down insurgents, with heavy use of Anglo-American special forces.

Now that the Presidential election has been pushed through what is needed is a new strategy that overcomes the disjuncture between the military and civilian strands of the mission – a comprehensive approach that has long been called for, but which remains elusive. It is not a question of checking the military, but ensuring that its actions are overseen by civilian leadership in a way that is aimed more tightly at unblocking currently-stalled development projects. It is no good for critics simply to keep repeating the mantra of "less military, more development". The challenge is to get these two parts of the mission working together.

Sour voices from off-stage are pointing out that Afghanistan's poll was flawed, that elections do not make a democracy and that the West is fixated on elections as a measure of progress. In reality preparations for the election reflected the ad hoc and inadequate international commitment to reform. For example, the consistent failure to build the capacity of Afghanistan's Electoral Commission greatly contributed to the voter fraud seen during the election. We should not glibly despair that such failings are inevitable but instead robustly question why we have provided such limited resources for such achievable tasks.

It might be a tall order to create a model state in Afghanistan. But we should not presume to question Afghans' aspirations to this end. The single biggest flaw of the Nato engagement has been the tendency to presume to know what Afghans want and need. State-building efforts must leave enough room for local variation. But they must not slide into a relativism that harks back to a colonial mind-set of dismissing Afghans' suitability for modern politics.

Nato's strategy in Afghanistan should not be reduced to finding the "right" Taliban leaders to negotiate with. Withdrawing from Afghanistan through localised deals such as that which took place in Badghis Province, where control of polling stations was effectively handed over to the Taliban by Spanish troops, will destroy any hopes of constructing accountable state institutions. The actions of the Spanish in Badghis are not unique and the ability to adapt and work with local realities is of course vital.

But expediency has become the name of the game in Afghanistan when what is needed is a balanced approach to creating real and lasting institutional change. Afghanistan's future is not for us to bargain. Neither is it in our interests to do so.

Richard Youngs is research director at the Foundation for International Relations and External Dialogue (FRIDE) in Madrid. Ed Burke, a senior researcher at FRIDE, also contributed to this article