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Afghanistan is not a hopeless quagmire

The choice now is to risk abandoning a decade of military and civilian investment, or to capitalise on it.

An elderly Afghan man walks past a US Army infantryman in the Panjwai district in Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images.

NATO’s leaders have set out a roadmap for long term political and economic support for Afghanistan, but the headline-grabbing component is that the NATO-led combat mission will cease in 2014.

Despite repeated assurances that the alliance will provide support and training to the Afghan National Security Forces well beyond 2014, the strategy is frequently portrayed as a "rush to the exit". This perception threatens to undermine our armed forces’ remarkable achievements in Afghanistan. After more than a decade of their sacrifices, the Afghan National Security Forces are increasingly able to take the lead in maintaining security. This is essential in order to build a functioning Afghan state.  But it is only one part of the task.  There are still daunting challenges to strengthen civilian services and the economy.

A decade of development assistance has transformed many lives. 5.8 million Afghan children, including 2.2 million girls, are now in school – up from 1 million boys and no girls under the Taleban.  More than half the population now have access to health facilities within an hour’s journey, compared to less than 10 per cent in 2002.

The situation in Afghanistan is far from rosy, but it is not the hopeless quagmire sometimes portrayed in the media which, understandably, gives more space to dreadful events like "green-on-blue" attacks, rather than the slow but steady progress with Afghanistan’s ability to stand on its own feet.

I have recently returned from my fifth visit to Afghanistan where I had the opportunity to take stock of the situation as seen by NATO military and civilian personnel and Afghan parliamentary and provincial leaders. One measure of progress is the truly remarkable growth in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).  A few years ago – and not before time – efforts began to recruit and train the over 350,000 soldiers and police men and women judged necessary to maintain security in Afghanistan.  With well over 300,000 now in place, Afghan forces are now taking the lead in a growing number of districts and provinces.  By the end of next year, they will be in the lead throughout Afghanistan although ISAF – and its successor – will continue to provide support and training well beyond 2014.  Some capabilities such as air support, medical evacuation and other key “enablers” take time to build from scratch.  Highly-skilled pilots and engineers cannot be produced quickly in a nation whose education system has been woefully neglected for decades.

This leads me to my key point: NATO-led forces have enabled Afghanistan to increasingly take responsibility for its own security.  We must now do more to assist Afghanistan to bring about a similar step change in governance and the economy.

President Karzai is due to step down, and a new president to be elected, in April 2014. The election will not run like clockwork but it must be free and fair enough to reassure voters that the victor really is the people’s choice.  Afghanistan’s large, well trained and well equipped security forces are accountable to the Head of State.  If the new President were to lack legitimacy their loyalty and accountability could be compromised.

The challenges are formidable. The relationship between central government and the provinces is sometimes dysfunctional, corruption is rife, skilled labour is in critically short supply, and the economy has been devastated by decades of war.  But the investments needed to address these problems are much smaller than those that have been made in security.  The choice now is to risk abandoning a decade of military and civilian investment, or to capitalise on it.

During my recent visit, I saw how leaders in Herat have begun to take advantage of the relatively stable security environment there to create new economic opportunities.  They greatly appreciate the transformation that the international community has made possible, but they are also aware that they still have an enormous mountain to climb, and the climb could be made faster and easier with more outside help.

So what can we do?

First, launch specific assistance programmes to mitigate the economic effects of reducing force numbers and closing military bases.  The force drawdown will hurt local communities which have benefited economically from providing goods and services to many of our military facilities.  We must avoid delivering a harsh economic blow to an already impoverished people.

Second, help Afghanistan to register voters and create a trusted and independent electoral commission to supervise the elections.

Third, emphasise and re-emphasise that 2014 marks a transition to a new form of engagement and not a withdrawal.  The Afghan people remember being abandoned by the international community before and naturally fear the prospect of a repeat performance.  There is already evidence that uncertainty about “post-2014” is leading to the flight of capital and educated Afghans whom the country can ill afford to lose.

NATO and its partners should announce as soon as possible the details of the forces that will deliver support and assistance beyond 2014.  At the same time, the national and international organizations delivering civil and economic assistance should demonstrate a visible expansion of their activities.

Fourth, as the budget for "military operations" reduces, governments should allocate a proportion of their peace dividend to development assistance in Afghanistan.  The ratio certainly doesn’t need to be one-to-one.

According to one estimate, each American serviceman costs about a million dollars per year.  To put that in perspective, Afghanistan receives about 220 million Euros per year in aid from the European Union’s central budget and about five times that figure from the EU nations themselves.  That is a lot of money, but less than $2 billion, so less than the cost of 2,000 soldiers when we are bringing tens of thousands home.  We shouldn’t just throw money at Afghanistan, but we must make sure that development programmes are sufficiently resourced.

We should do this because we have succeeded in raising hopes in Afghanistan, and we have a responsibility to help those hopes to be fulfilled.  And if that is not reason enough, we should remember that it is in our own interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not fail. We have witnessed the terrible consequences of the world turning its back on Afghanistan. Through literally heroic efforts and sacrifices, Afghanistan is almost ready to take the lead in dealing with its own security problems.  We should now rise to the civil and economic challenges to make sure that our military sacrifices have not been in vain.