Editorial: Our duty is to build a state as best we can

The onus of resisting the Taliban now rests on the frail Afghan national army

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It was neither a scuttle nor a rout. Taking place a year-and-a-half before Nato’s planned withdrawal, yesterday’s handover to Afghan state forces, though tainted by yet another terrorist attack, could be described as dignified. Both Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato Secretary-General, and President Hamid Karzai found optimistic words to mark the occasion.

Despite this, however, there was no disguising that this is a war the West has lost. It was launched to destroy a regime that had put itself beyond the pale by throwing down the welcome mat to Osama bin Laden. But even without that fatal error, the Taliban state was a diplomatic pariah, shunned by almost the whole world, enforcing a version of Islam that shuttered girls and wives inside their homes, banned music and all other entertainment and staged public executions and amputations in Kabul’s football stadium. By sheltering al-Qa’ida they brought the war on their heads, but theirs was a brutal, medieval regime that offered long-suffering Afghans no lasting hope of improvement in their lives. The only achievement to their credit was that they had come close to pacifying the country after the sanguinary years of Mujahedin civil war. 

Within weeks of the war’s beginning, the Taliban had fled Kabul, Kandahar and other cities, and reckless voices in the West were proclaiming victory. But anyone familiar with the Afghan way of warfare knew it was nothing of the sort: as in every other war fought in that country, the Taliban melted away and mustered their forces to fight another day. And that is precisely what they have done. Twelve years on they are ubiquitous and stronger than ever. The fact that Nato is pulling out does not mean the war is over: it means that the full onus of resisting the Taliban from now on rests on the frail shoulders of the Afghan national army, which has been losing a third of its force to desertions every year. 

After the loss of 444 British soldiers in the war, the Government is naturally keen to represent Britain’s withdrawal as a positive development, akin to the granting of independence to a former colony. But there is nothing to be gained by pretending that this particular adventure has been anything but a catastrophe, a case of neo-imperial hubris armour-plated with historical ignorance and illuminated by dreams of transforming Afghanistan into a secularised democracy – dreams which had already been shattered twice in the previous half century.

Announcing that, as he put it, “From tomorrow all security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces,” President Karzai also said that he would send representatives to Qatar to start talks with the senior Taliban who have been there for more than two years, waiting to open an office. But who will talk to whom about what? Yesterday White House officials also announced imminent talks with the Taliban, on condition that the Islamist militia renounce violence, break ties with al-Qa’ida and respect the Afghan constitution.

It is not impossible that the Taliban will agree those terms. Given that they are not given to hypocrisy, however, it must be considered unlikely. From the Taliban’s perspective, the Nato handover means that their 12-year war has entered a brilliantly promising new phase: not only have the most professional forces ranged against them withdrawn to barracks, but the Afghan troops, though in theory receiving Nato  air support, have in fact been left largely to their own devices. The Afghan state we are leaving behind is weak, corrupt and bitterly divided, and it is not clear how long it will survive. The challenge of the next 18 months is to do all we can to strengthen it, while eradicating its most glaring weaknesses.

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