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Leading article: Time to commit to the future of Afghanistan


After more than 10 years of conflict and tens of thousands of lives lost, the international community has more responsibilities towards Afghanistan than ever. At the second multilateral conference in Bonn today, a decade on from the first, we must prove that those commitments will be comprehensively met.

It is all too easy to cast Nato's involvement in Afghanistan as a failure, with the arbitrary withdrawal of troops by 2014 as the final, conclusive evidence of defeat. It is true that the optimism of the first Bonn conference looks recklessly naive given the violence that has racked the country since. And recent diplomatic overtures to the Taliban only add to the sense that nothing much has been achieved. There have nonetheless been advances. Afghan politics may be corrupt, but the situation is a world away from the extremist repression that went before. The status of the country's women is also telling: there are now three million girls in school and a constitutional commitment to gender equality. Economic growth is heading in the right direction too, albeit from a woefully low base.

But progress, always fragile, now hangs by a thread. The international community – keen to rid itself of the millstone of an unwinnable war – must not allow a narrative of defeat to become an excuse for abandoning the Afghans just as they need us most. President Hamid Karzai says his country requires another decade of assistance. It is a call that must be answered.

There are four areas demanding attention in Bonn. First is security. Afghanistan is still riven by violence. Nato countries must both continue to support the recruitment and training of Afghan soldiers and police, and also step up efforts to address alarming reports of abuses by local forces. Quantity is not enough; the focus must also be on quality.

Second, the international community has a vital role to play in Afghanistan's political development: in securing peaceful reconciliation with the Taliban, in fostering the emerging political class, and in helping nascent democratic institutions to mature.

Third is the position of Afghan women. There are disquieting signs that ground is already being lost: violence against women is rising; the number of girls at school is falling; and there are disturbing suggestions that women's rights may be used as a bargaining tool with the Taliban. There must be explicit guarantees from Bonn that women will take an active part in the reconciliation process and that protective laws will be upheld.

The final piece in the jigsaw is the economy. Efforts to address entrenched deprivation and under-developed infrastructure are a vital counterpoint to political advances, helping to tilt Afghanistan away from extremism, warlordism and a destabilising dependence on poppies.

Progress will not come cheap. Estimates range from $5bn to $12bn a year. But that is a fraction of the cost of either continued military involvement or another failed state. Indeed, the stakes could not be higher. If Afghanistan is allowed to descend into civil war the implications for both global terrorism and regional stability are dire. In such a context, it is regrettable that Pakistan is boycotting today's conference, following Nato's deadly cross-border air strike last week.

Nor is Pakistan the only notable non-attendance. Sceptics claim the Taliban's absence as evidence that Bonn can be little more than a talking shop. The international community must ensure that they are wrong. More than anything else, it is a matter of common humanity that we do not abandon the Afghan people now. The first Bonn conference was marked by an astonishing complacency as to the risks ahead. Let this one be marked instead by an acknowledgement of what still needs to be done, and an unequivocal commitment to do it.