Last month, 74 foreign soldiers died in Afghanistan: 43 of them were American, 22 were British. It was the most lethal month for Nato since the Afghan war began. What they died for remains undefined, but to the armed forces minister Bill Rammell, the absurdly named Operation Panther's Claw is a success because it has "weakened the resolve" of the Taliban leadership. If Rammell knows that to be true, his sources inside the Taliban must be better than they look.
More seasoned observers picture eager replacements stepping up to replace their martyred predecessors, and the Nato troops assigned to "hold" the territory "gained" in Panther's Claw becoming unwitting recruiting sergeants for a war of national liberation. Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Britain's ambassador to the United States, warned at the start of this month that British troops would have to stay in Afghanistan for many years, but the central question remains unanswered: "Until what?" We are left to guess what victory would look like in an imagined future that stretches well beyond the electoral term of any British or American politician now in office.
If the objective is to prevent Afghanistan again hosting al-Qaeda or its clones, a stable, efficient government acting in the western interest is
required, supported by a professional army loyal to the legitimate government of the day. Alternatively, a dictator ruthless and effective enough to enforce his will - and prepared to be bought - might also do.
Neither option seems close. One can only imagine, even on the optimistic assumption that Nato actions are improving rather than lowering the chances of one of these outcomes, that we will be there, as Sir Nigel warns, for decades to come. Add to this the other objectives that have been tossed about to enhance the war's voter appeal - the emancipation of women, democracy, development, state-building, the stabilisation of the Pakistani borderlands - and a lifetime hardly seems enough.
The July operation and the claims made for it make sense only against the rather more truncated horizon of this month's proposed elections. As Malalai Joya's memoir makes clear, it is not as if the election will solve anything substantial; but eight years, thousands of lives and billions of dollars later, not even to be able to hold an election in Afghanistan would look like failure, and too much so to be tolerable. Those who remember Vietnam will find the narrative of the redemptive next election quite familiar.
For a sense of what Afghan democracy really looks like, it is worth turning to Joya's damning assessment of every electoral exercise since the Loya Jirga that opened this catalogue of illusions in 2002. Joya was born the year before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. She spent the first 16 years of her life in exile in Iran and Pakistan, returning to Afghanistan as a young activist to set up clandestine schools and health services in Farah Province.
This biography should have made Joya a leading player in Afghanistan's post-Taliban political life. Instead, she is a poster child for its failure. Saluted abroad for her courage and nominated for, or the winner of, a long list of international human rights and peace prizes, she lives clandestinely in Afghanistan itself, suspended from parliament for allegedly insulting the warlords and drug barons who occupy most of its seats.
The politics of Afghanistan have been defined by force for at least three decades, and remain conditioned by that history: from the creation
in the 1980s, by the United States and Pakistan, of the international jihad to fight the Soviet occupation to the hasty pact with the butchers of the Northern Alliance in 2001, yesterday's desperate remedy has become today's unintended consequence. Politicians who point this out, as Joya, the Cassandra of Kabul, does, are not welcome. The point about Cassandra, however, was that she was right.
Joya provoked outrage at the 2002 Loya Jirga when she denounced the presence of war criminals. She caused further consternation when, elected to parliament, she refused to moderate her rhetoric and was suspended. By her own account, she remains a hero to her followers and
to a wider constituency of ordinary Afghans. She is also the target of death threats and worse. One day we may be reading about the martyrdom of this latest in a long line of idealists, many of them women, who have fought for secular democracy in Afghanistan.
Only the "sincere, peace-loving people" that Joya meets at home and abroad escape her censure; most others are either to be mistrusted as puppets of the US, like Hamid Karzai, or denounced as outright criminals. Three decades of war in a poor country with powerful neighbours is unlikely to produce polite politics or gentle speech in anyone. This is an activist's account, angry and denunciatory. If it offers little in the way of hope for the future, Joya is hardly to blame for that. Its indispensable function is to remind us that the next time we are told that progress is being made, or elections have produced a credible result, or that just another 10,000 pairs of boots on the ground will fix the problem, we should remember what happened to a young woman who disagreed.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of China Dialogue