Afghanistan has been a playground for the fantasies of violent men for a quarter of a century. Soviet tyranny, mujahedin anarchy and Taliban obscurantism wreaked havoc on state institutions and economic prosperity, reducing Afghanistan to the poorest, most underdeveloped country in the Muslim world. For most Afghans, the past 25 years might have been lifted straight from Hobbes's Leviathan - "a time of Warre" in which "continuall feare, and danger of violent death" were ever present.
To optimists in Washington and London, things appear to be looking up. The Taliban were overthrown in late 2001. A moderate Islamic constitution, with an obligatory nod towards women's rights, was agreed upon in 2003. Following elections last October a democratic, pro-western president, Hamid Karzai, was installed peacefully. Voting with their feet, three million Afghans have returned from refugee camps in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. George W Bush has happily pronounced Afghanistan "the first victory in the war on terror".
Chris Johnson and Jolyon Leslie are less sanguine. Experienced aid workers who have lived in Afghanistan since 1989, their book is both a catalogue of criticism of western efforts in Afghanistan and a lucid, jargon-free guide to that country's profounder social and cultural realities. Its greatest strength lies in its anatomy of Afghanistan's intractable problems, many of which have been ignored or even exacerbated by western intervention. Foremost among these is Afghans' lack of security, made worse by a pathetically weak state.
Indeed, if a state is defined by its monopoly of force, Afghanistan hardly qualifies. The writ of Kabul's government barely extends beyond the suburbs, and most of the country remains controlled by local commanders. The optimistically named Afghan National Army has only 8,000 trained troops; it is estimated that Afghan-istan's motley crew of warlords have 75,000 troops and 100,000 militiamen at their disposal. Nor is there any policy in place to remedy this: the Bonn Agreement of 2001 set in train political and constitutional reform, but contained no programme for disarmament.
Western forces have done little to improve security. In Kosovo, Nato supplied one peacekeeper for every 500 Kosovars - in Afghanistan there is one for every 5,000. Most of Nato's 6,500-strong International Security Assistance Force guards prosperous Kabul, while just 250 or so Germans have been de-ployed outside the capital. The 18,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan are largely engaged in a futile search for Taliban and Qaeda leaders. As in Iraq, their aggressive house-to-house searches have alienated many of the people. "Not even the Soviets kicked down the doors of our homes and searched like this," one elder remarked sadly to Johnson.
In the absence of security, development efforts have foundered. One-third of rural areas are unsafe for aid agencies, several of which have quit the country after employees of theirs were murdered. Public services remain minimal: fewer than 20 per cent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and 6 per cent have regular access to electricity, while 50 per cent suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's opium trade is booming. As the authors observe, an unacknowledged benefit of the now-demonised Taliban was their draconian form of law and order, which enabled them to impose an effective ban on opium cultivation - reducing the crop to 185 tonnes in 2000. The present ban is totally ineffective: in 2003 Afghanistan produced 3,400 tonnes of opium, and the crop accounted for upwards of 60 per cent of GDP, swelling the pockets of drug traders and fuelling creeping corruption nationwide. In Badakhshan Province, the chief of police "has the largest heroin factory in the country in his garden", while the governor receives $10,000 a month in bribes from traders.
With Afghan opium supplying 95 per cent of Britain's heroin trade, the UK has taken a lead role in attempts to stem the flow. But it is hard to persuade farmers to switch from a crop that pays $5 a day at harvest-time: any substitute brings in less than $1. The only decent economic solution - to legalise and tax the trade - is not on Whitehall's agenda. More likely will be a growing use of force, Colombia-style.
Johnson and Leslie are on weaker ground when offering answers to these problems. They deride the idea of building a stronger state as a "fantasy", and instead argue for a radical decentralisation of power to Afghan local leaders and communities. Their historical logic is good - all Afghanistan's experiments in state-building since the 19th century have lacked legitimacy, depended on foreign aid and sunk into repression - but their political instincts are poor and too tainted by cynicism.
Western efforts in Afghanistan are not based on a Machiavellian desire for pipelines and military bases, as the authors sometimes suggest. Rather, they are rooted in the rhetorical commitment of Bush and Blair to exporting "democracy". It is this rhetoric that has led to the overwhelming stress on building an accountable government, and to a dire neglect of security and development needs. As a consequence, western policy has been underfunded, undermanned and ill-thought-out. On the evidence of this book, the lives of most Afghans remain poor, nasty, brutish and short. The men with guns remain largely in control.