Ten years on from the launch of military operations in Afghanistan, questions about what has been achieved yield far from encouraging answers. And with international attention now focused on withdrawing all troops by 2014, what little progress there has been is looking increasingly vulnerable.
Against the narrowest of criteria, Operation Enduring Freedom was not a complete failure. The original aims were to hunt down Osama bin Laden and to dismantle the al-Qa'ida networks flourishing under the aegis of the Taliban. Both have been achieved, if not quite in the way that was anticipated. If only that had been the end of the matter. Instead a confused international agenda allowed the initial, limited operation to morph into large-scale security operations, and piecemeal state-building efforts hampered by continuing lawlessness.
It would be a mistake to overlook the real advances that have been made. Democratic elections, a written constitution and a degree of social freedom have replaced the violent extremism of Taliban repression, at least in parts of the country. But the transformation of Afghanistan into a stable democracy has still barely begun.
Escalating violence is only the most obvious sign that the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force has not lived up to its billing. Far from improving, the situation is getting worse: the number of security incidents has leapt by 39 per cent leap so far this year, according to the UN. There is also a drum-beat of high-profile political assassinations, including the shooting of President Hamid Karzai's brother and last month's killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan President and the head of the panel trying to open talks with the Taliban.
Efforts to bring the once-despised Taliban to the negotiating table are not restricted to the Afghan government. The international community, led by the US, is doing the same. It is a painful – and apparently coincidental – irony that talks on the 2014 security handover are to be held in Bonn in December. At the first Bonn conference, exactly 10 years earlier, Afghan tribal leaders thrashed out a new political settlement, preparing the ground for democratic institutions and the adoption of a constitution. Then, the Taliban were excluded. Now, they are seen as central to any meaningful peace settlement. There can be no clearer admission that the pledge to rid Afghanistan of its repressive regime has proved impossible to deliver. More worrying still is the growing evidence that offers to scale back women's rights may be used as bait to persuade the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal.
The issue of women's rights – or the lack of them – was one of the most-quoted justifications for international involvement in Afghanistan. It was also one of the most convincing. Outside Kabul, change is painfully slow: child marriage, honour killings and self-immolation are still all too common in rural areas, as is distressingly clear from the accounts in this newspaper today. In some respects, the lot of women is, nonetheless, not as bad as it was. Nearly three million girls are now in school compared with a few thousand under the Taliban. Crucially, there is the aspiration of full equal rights, explicitly enshrined in the constitution. To bargain away such rights, and sacrifice Afghanistan's women to an arbitrary international timetable for withdrawal, would be as egregious a failure as any of the whole messy conflict.
The outlook is not wholly bleak. Although mineral wealth too often funds endemic corruption, Afghanistan's vast natural resources could still be a source of funding and stability. But the international community must help realise the potential. Western military stamina may be exhausted, but we owe it to the Afghan people – particularly the women – not to abandon them.