For all the grand rhetoric, we have failed to see through our mission in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

Two years ago, Tony Blair promised that the international community would not ignore the plight of the Afghan people, that "this time we will not walk away". We may not have quite walked away yet, but we have undoubtedly turned away - to Iraq.

Two years ago, following the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Tony Blair promised that the international community would not ignore the plight of the Afghan people, that "this time we will not walk away". We may not have quite walked away yet, but we have undoubtedly turned away - to Iraq. And now our Prime Minister is spraying around pledges with equal conviction that we will "stay the course" there. But life in Afghanistan today is just as cheap as it was under the Taliban and, for all Mr Blair's promises, it remains a lawless, impoverished state. The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee will warn in July that our failure to rebuild post-war Afghanistan could be repeated in Iraq.

It is salutary to recognise just how badly the world community has failed Afghanistan. For many years, that country's two main exports have been terrorism and drugs. The US-led invasion may have staunched the flow of the first, but it has done nothing to prevent the dissemination of the second. Afghanistan is once again the world's leading exporter of heroin, according to the UN's office on Drugs and Crime. This is hardly the right way to bring it into the web of civilised nations.

But drugs are only part of the story. The failure of the international community to build a stable domestic economy has left many farmers with little option but to turn to drug crops if they want to provide for their families. Economic reconstruction cannot proceed without funds and there has been a notable lack of will shown on this front. According to most estimates, the country requires around $15bn to $20bn over the next five years to build roads, clinics and provide food for people. The international community has pledged only $7 bn. This is nation building on the cheap; unsurprisingly, it is not working.

And then we come to the root of all the country's problems: security, or rather the lack of it. The authority of Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, is limited to the capital in Kabul. Elsewhere, unpleasant warlords such as General Dostum and Ismail Khan run private fiefdoms with no regard to central government. Girls may have been permitted to go to school under the new constitution, but these rights are simply ignored in the provinces.

Unelected and unaccountable, these men rule with a brutality that would have rivalled even the Taliban. And the Taliban itself is far from finished in Afghanistan: in the Pashtun heartlands of the south, they have re-emerged, intimidating local officials and waging a guerrilla war against the American forces.

The 10,000 American troops still stationed in the country regard their primary objective as the elimination of terrorists and, in particular, the capture of Osama bin Laden. Worse, the handful of army-led provincial reconstruction teams are confusing military and aid missions. In the words of one US soldier: "The more they help us find the bad guys, the more good stuff they get". As a result of this, aid workers have become "legitimate targets" in the minds of insurgents.

Nation building from the top down looks to be a vain hope. President Karzai has been forced to postpone elections that were scheduled for next month. This is due to the ubiquitous instability and the fact that only 1.6 million out of 10.5 million people eligible to vote have registered. With each day that passes, the President's legitimacy fades.

Afghans can justifiably point to the emptiness of President Bush's rhetoric of "spreading freedom" and of our own Prime Minister's messianic posturing over the past two years. Just as in Iraq, they claimed to be liberators, but the reality has been different. We have failed to see through our mission in Afghanistan and unless the international community redoubles its efforts to provide security there, the future will remain bleak. As President Bush insists that his nation-building in Iraq is running according to schedule, the abandonment of the Afghans looks not only ill-advised, but a cynical betrayal.

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