Last month I was invited to Afghanisatn to evaluate the impact of a development programme.
Time was mostly spent in the office – a well-fortified concrete block. Just getting to work is a lengthy procedure. Four doors, five guards, an ID check and a frisk later I arrive at my desk in a distinctly contemporary office well separated from the lives of the Afghan people in the street 200 metres away.
Much has changed since my last visit over a year ago. Then, living and working in the southern province of Uruzgan I led an operational team to stabilise sectors of the province through the delivery of physical infrastructure while providing local communities with vocational training and jobs.
Local Afghan people advised, designed and delivered much of the projects I was responsible for. Uruzgan has traditional systems of functioning, local forms of security, administration and dispute resolution. These pre-dated the intervention and continue to work and support communities.
Now, I look out through the office windows encased in blast film, the soft burr of computers and the air conditioning hum cooling me from 37oC heat. This is where much policy was made – with an ignorance of culture, language, politics and society.
It is a desperate situation; after 2014 there will be chaos and perhaps worse – further violence. And so departure will feel wrong, even a betrayal of our soldiers who have fought to protect our security in the UK. But what benefits will staying beyond 2014 bring? Since 2002 the United States has provided about $100 billion of funding for non-military activities alone while attempting to implement counter-insurgency and nation-building.
Keeping international forces in Afghanistan will not secure the country’s future. The west will and should continue to provide financial support for the national army and other essential government infrastructure, but it will not provide a solution for the people of Afghanistan.
I believe there is only one option left – an Afghan solution. In the end, these are the only people who can build legitimate political authority, we might not like the end result, and it may not be fully supported by the west. But for the foreigners here in Kabul, time has run out.
Afghanistan is not hopeless. Forty years ago, it was a peaceful country. My father visited Kandahar and Jalalabad on a motorbike, and guidebooks wrote of Kabul city where “…tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars and wide avenues fill with brilliant flowing turbans, gaily striped chapans, mini-skirted schoolgirls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic.”
Maybe, in the distant future, guidebooks will talk of a new city life, without high concrete walls and a streetscape of blast barriers. Even a failing state does not last forever.