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The UK and its partners must commit to Afghanistan

The Afghan people were promised a country where human rights are respected and protected. We cannot

Osama Bin Laden's death has fuelled questions about the UK's presence in Afghanistan. Amidst all the debate, we are in danger of losing sight of the crucial point: when the international forces leave Afghanistan, they must leave behind national forces capable and ready to protect the Afghan people – or risk the country plunging back into civil war.

July marks the start of yet another chapter in Afghanistan's story when international forces begin to hand over responsibility for security to the Afghan army and police. The handover is due to be completed by the end of 2014 – a dauntingly ambitious timetable in this fragile country.

It is far from certain that Afghanistan will have an adequately professional, accountable national security force by the time the international forces leave. Yet this, above all, is what will determine the legacy the UK and its partners leave behind after a long and costly war.

The ousting of the Taliban in 2001 was heralded as a defining moment for the Afghan people – a "triumph for human rights", in the words of the US state department. Four years later, when more than 50 nations gathered in London to discuss the rebuilding of Afghanistan, there was still a sense of optimism about the country's future.

The leaders at that conference knew that a professional, nationally respected and ethnically balanced police and army were vital to building a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. They agreed they would help to create these security forces by the end of 2010. That deadline has now passed – but few would claim that the expectations of the Afghan people have been met. Instead, amid dwindling hopes for Afghanistan, efforts to build the nation's security forces stand out as one of the greatest failures of the past decade.

Basic instincts

In February the head of Nato's training mission in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Caldwell, candidly acknowledged the grave mistakes made in the attempt to rapidly develop the national security forces. In particular, he admitted the international military have prioritised quantity over quality, with devastating results.

As he said: "We sent [police] into service with no training, no police education, and with only the promise to train [them] some day . . . and we wondered why so many Afghans felt their police were corrupt and ineffective . . . Well, they were."

Indeed, one official working for the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said that, as late as 2008, "community members were basically rounded up off the street, told they were doing cash-for-work, and then they'd turn up at training and told they were police". There are currently an estimated 40,000 police who have not received even the most basic training. It's not surprising they're so derided by the Afghan public.

But it's not just about international governments keeping their promises. Afghan communities desperately want security and have high hopes for their own security forces. Training is a big problem, but so, too, is the lack of accountability of the police and army. Many Afghans believe – justifiably so – that Afghan soldiers and police are able to carry out abuse with impunity.

Last year, a young girl was raped by Afghan soldiers and then shot in the head when she tried to resist. The alleged perpetrator was assisted to flee the area by members of the security forces. An investigation was finally initiated under pressure from the army's legal advisers, but there was no investigation into the attempted cover-up.

In another incident, two women were lashed in public by local elders as police stood by laughing and clapping. The authorities told the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) that it wasn't possible to carry out an investigation.

When will they ever learn?

This perception that the Afghan police and army are able to get away with rape and other serious human rights abuses is undermining popular support for the Afghan government – with grave political implications. As one investigator with the AIHRC explained, "Everybody knows that the Taliban abuse human rights, but people have more hope from their own forces. And where there's a lot of hope, there's a lot of blame."

We know that the west's neglect of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal contributed to the ongoing conflict and instability. Lessons need to be learned from past mistakes.

War in Afghanistan is not inevitable. If Afghans see justice being done, and feel protected from violence by an army and a police force that are accountable to the public, there's a vastly better chance that international efforts could succeed in breaking the seemingly endless cycle of war.

The Afghan people were promised a country where human rights are respected, protected and governed by the rule of law. We cannot afford to let them down – for their sakes and for our own. It's not yet too late, but without genuine political commitment at the highest levels of civilian and military leadership to build the kind of national security forces that Afghans can trust, it soon will be.

Rebecca Barber is a humanitarian policy officer with Oxfam and the author of a recent report on Afghanistan, No Time to Lose.