Fragile Afghanistan faces uncertain future

Afghan girl Image copyright AP
Image caption More Afghan girls are now getting an education

"A land of overpowering beauty, and seemingly unending violence. Extreme poverty… Real progress since 2001, but much will be lost if we do not sustain our support."

That was Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, in his June 2007 First Impressions cable (diplomatic report) to his masters in London.

He was writing just six weeks after arriving in Kabul as British ambassador to Afghanistan.

The assessment remains highly relevant today - not because circumstances are the same but because the risks remain.

The current challenge is to sustain and build on the faltering progress that has been made in recent years, or risk Afghanistan's collapse back into a much darker state.

The newly elected president, Ashraf Ghani, is promising a "transformation decade".

Some sort of transformation is inevitable. Afghanistan will look very different.

Foreign combat troops are all but gone now, before the year-end deadline to complete the handover to Afghanistan's own security forces.

President Ghani represents a new political beginning too, following the country's first democratic transfer of power after the Hamid Karzai years.

So what is the state of Afghanistan handed on to Mr Ghani and the man he shares power with as so-called chief executive - prime minister, in effect - Dr Abdullah Abdullah?

Fundamentalist threat

It remains a highly insecure country, and highly vulnerable to extremists, particularly the Taliban.

They continue to find recruitment relatively easy, especially in areas where most Afghans remain condemned to being the desperately poor "have-nots" suffering huge inequalities compared with the growing - but still too small - ranks of the "haves".

There are plenty of positives to point to.

Although measures of progress can be unreliable in a country where simply gathering facts can be so hazardous, it is generally accepted that the number of children in schools has increased substantially since 2001.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ashraf Ghani leads a democratically elected government

In particular, girls have been the beneficiaries, with some 40% of them getting an education previously denied by a combination of Afghanistan's traditionally conservative attitude to the advancement of women and the Taliban's outright hostility.

Life expectancy for Afghans is up. The death rate among women in childbirth is down.

Many of the key indicators that keep Afghanistan close to the bottom of global poverty tables are moving in the right direction.

But few observers really dispute that much more could have been achieved if the international community had really maintained the solidarity it showed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that provoked the toppling of the Taliban in late 2001.

Nato countries unanimously pledged to come to the aid of the US under attack and honour their commitment to mutual defence.

In reality, only some members of the Nato military alliance were really willing to put their troops in the line of fire in Afghanistan.

Others sent forces on the understanding they would only be deployed to back areas largely removed from risk.

Some Nato officials told me they were referred to disparagingly as "the potted plants" - decorative but useless.

There was a similar story when it came to giving real money - real treasure - to develop Afghanistan and, above all, to provide jobs and prosperity - the best defence of all against extremists.

As someone who reported from the massive UN Bonn Conference at the end of 2001 that tried, very honourably, to lay the foundations for post-Taliban security and good governance, and reported also on innumerable so-called "pledging conferences" where rich nations promised eye-watering sums of money, it was disappointing to see several having to be chased for the cash in the following years.

Internal corruption

But progress in Afghanistan has had an even bigger enemy within the country - corruption.

As part of this latest London Conference on Afghanistan, just ahead of the formal political sessions in the grand setting of Lancaster House, a coalition of major charities and aid organisations - "British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan" - held sessions to pool ideas at Church House, Westminster.

I listened to speaker after speaker, particularly Afghans themselves working in the frontline of efforts to spread education and opportunity, pointing to corruption as public enemy number one.

Baryalai Omerzai spoke for the Afghan Community Rehabilitation Unit, but he seemed to be speaking for most of his very diverse audience too, when he pressed the case for action against corruption and in favour of a cultural revolution among all those in authority to guarantee that no-one in Afghanistan is above the law.

The overwhelming message was that the world needs to stick with the Afghan project.

Image copyright AP
Image caption There is still support for hardline groups such as the Taliban

The charities and civil society groups fear that international troop withdrawal could undermine and reverse what has been achieved so far. Why?

Not because they want foreign forces to remain - Afghanistan has never tolerated visitors with guns - but because they fear the emerging government will not prove strong enough to protect them.

A survey of aid workers and rights campaigners suggests 60% of them feel less safe now than they did a year ago.

Those fears may even have increased in recent days in the face of an upsurge of Taliban attacks.

Their other huge concern is that as troops go home, so the flow of aid money to Afghanistan will dry up.

Governments in the rich world, notably the British and US, deny that that will be any part of their strategy.

Britain insists it is committed for the long term.

One minister put it bluntly: "No one can question the commitment of Her Majesty's government to Afghanistan after the blood and treasure we have expended."

But the suspicions of wider international commitment remain. Afghanistan remains very fragile indeed, and its future far from certain.

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