Afghanistan’s challenges ahead

Money and sweet words cannot hide the failure by Western powers to leave behind anything like a functioning state

Let it not be said that the West’s intervention in Afghanistan, at a cost of $1trn (£639bn) and the loss of 453 British lives, has achieved nothing: today, after nationwide elections and the first ever democratic handover of power, the country is ruled jointly by a Pashtun from the south and a Tajik from the north – bitter enemies when the intervention began. None of these three achievements was thinkable a dozen years ago. At Thursday's London conference on Afghanistan, this break with the bitter sectarian past will be something to cheer.

Both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive – in effect the Prime Minister – Abdullah Abdullah are articulate, well-educated men who are comfortable doing business with the West. They know each other well and have co-operated in government before. Their agreement to govern jointly was only reached after months of wrangling, but at least they are now in office. Mr Ghani in particular, as co-president of an organisation called the Institute for State Effectiveness, can claim to be an expert at state-building. Having spent many years advising others, now he has the chance of a lifetime to try it for himself.

But there is nothing to be gained by minimising the challenges Afghanistan faces. And as a sketch of those challenges, the government’s memo about the conference is a masterpiece of understatement. “This year,” it goes, “marks the end of the international combat mission in Afghanistan. Since July 2013, the Afghan National Security Forces have been in the lead providing security across the country.”

This makes the intervention sound like a success and Afghanistan like a normal country, which was clearly the intention. Notably absent from the document is a single mention of the Taliban. Yet the ugly fact is that, 13 years after American bombs rained down on Kabul and more than 12 years since the Taliban’s tactical withdrawal prompted wildly premature talk of victory, their insurgency is stronger than ever, controlling large areas of the south, east and north of the country.

As a result, Afghanistan is at dire risk within a few years of going the way of Iraq, and for similar reasons. The state, such as it is, sits on a mountain of corruption, the inevitable by-product of the billions spent during the intervention. The boom years of the economy, another product of the lavish Western presence, are already over. The four-year-old army is a frail entity. Claims that 6.7 million children are in school, more than 2.5 million of them girls, are badly damaged by reports that a large majority of teachers in one region are unqualified and some are illiterate. And beyond the leafier corners of Kabul, there is little reason to believe that Western ideas about gender equality, civil society and so on have sunk any deeper roots than they did during the Soviet modernisation attempt 35 years ago.

If Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah succeed in collaborating despite the entrenched enmity of their respective ethnicities, it will be a remarkable result. But what is there to say about the Vice-President, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the warlord notorious for roasting hundreds of Taliban prisoners to death in shipping containers? If the Taliban wants to persuade people that the bad old days are back, that’s the only name it needs.

The West has learnt the hard way that building a state is far more difficult than merely throwing money and sweet words at a war. Should we spend £178m over the next three years to help keep Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah’s leaky boat afloat? We can do no less, after all the expenditure of money and lives and rhetoric up till now. But Afghanistan will need a miracle.