For too long, Afghanistan has served as evidence of the folly of western military intervention. The cost, in both blood and treasure, of what Barack Obama once called “the good war” has exceeded all initial forecasts. Over the 12-year occupation, Nato has spent more than $1trn and the coalition has lost 3,430 soldiers. Britain’s involvement has cost the government £38bn, with 448 troops killed and thousands more wounded. At least 30,000 Afghan civilians have died in the conflict.
If the costs have long been clear, the gains have not. Al-Qaeda, the destruction of which was the original intention of the mission, has regrouped in the Pakistani borderlands, spawning murderous affiliates in Iraq, Syria and eastern and northern Africa. The resurgent Taliban have seized control of large parts of the rural south. Afghanistan is now ranked as one of the three most corrupt countries and the world’s biggest opium producer. It is the poorest state in Asia and 175th on the UN’s chart for gender equality.
The presidential election on 5 April, coinciding with the withdrawal of British troops from Helmand Province, was expected to confirm the grim prognosis. The months before the contest were marked by a new wave of Taliban attacks on foreigners and government institutions. The election, it was commonly thought, would succumb to violence, intimidation and fraud.
Yet, against expectations, as William Dalrymple reports on page 32, the vote has provided rare grounds for hope. In defiance of the Taliban, 58 per cent of the electorate turned out, nearly twice as many as in 2009, with women accounting for a third of voters. Such was the desire to participate that polling stations began to run out of ballots by midday. Had it not been for the unexpectedly large queues and the closure of some voting centres in the restive south, turnout would have been even higher. The Taliban, determined to render the election void, planned a barrage of attacks but in the presence of 400,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers, only 140 took place. What was once deemed impossible now appears probable: the first peaceful transfer of power in the tragic history of Afghanistan.
Rather than clinging to office, as many predicted, Hamid Karzai has not just tolerated but encouraged the free and fair election of a successor. Initial results suggest that a second-round run-off (assuming no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote) is likely to be fought between the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, the outgoing president’s main opponent in 2009, and the charismatic technocrat Ashraf Ghani. Zalmai Rassoul, Mr Karzai’s preferred successor, appears to have been defeated but beyond any individual candidate, the president’s loyalty is to the democratic transition on which his reputation depends.
It would be careless to assume that this progress will last. As Mr Dalrymple notes, “There are a million things that could still go wrong: the withdrawal of US military and civilian aid; Indo-Pak rivalry leading to renewed support by Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban; the collapse of the fragile Afghan economy; or a growing Pashtun/Tajik fracture following a disputed election run-off in May.” But in the lead-up to the departure of almost all western forces at the end of this year, those Afghans committed to democracy have a chance to chart their own course, free from the taint of “collaboration” with foreign troops.
There are some who will cite this achievement as justification for all that has gone before – but they would be wrong. In some respects, it was in spite of the occupation, not because of it, that the election was successful.
The calamitous decision not to negotiate with the Taliban and seek a political settlement early in the conflict led to years of avoidable violence. The British, given their imperial history, should have known that occupation and military force would not pacify the country known as “the graveyard of empires”.
Yet, even after more than a decade of war, the lessons of this misadventure have still not been learned. It was by accident, not by design, that the UK avoided being drawn into the sectarian vortex of Syria. The reckless intervention in Libya left that country ungovernable and allowed thousands of jihadists to spill over into Algeria and Mali. As Afghans prepare to fight for their country’s future, the obstacles they face should serve as a permanent reminder that the west must never start what it cannot finish.