Leaving Afghanistan is not an option. There is still much work to do

The citizens of Afghanistan and their international partners have a second chance to get their partnership right. Leaving now is not on the table; the terrible consequences of leaving Afghanistan to the dogs of war in the 1990s are well known. But to make the partnership work requires a significant change in approach, drawing on lessons both from the last years in Afghanistan and the last decades around the world.

We must recognise that most Afghans just want to live ordinary lives, and the key to stability rests in the ability of Afghans to trust in their future. But we can and must find much smarter ways to support Afghans in their quest for stability. After 9/11, it was possible to forge a partnership between the Afghan people and those who pledged at the UN to help them restore their country to stability. By December 2004, there had been no suicide bomb, and no Nato soldier had died of anything other than natural causes. This partnership was founded on a joint commitment to rule of law, the commitment of the international community to safeguard the political settlement, and on the commitment of a team of Afghans to set out a vision and govern the country justly. Essential government services were restored under Afghan leadership, one by one, starting with the Afghan National Army, the public finance system, the health service, and a programme that engaged every village in their own reconstruction. The military presence of ISAF and then Nato was to keep the peace and train the army.

But after 2005, this partnership went off track, as commitment to rule of law deteriorated. The consequences of relying on and bolstering the strong men who had secured the victory against the Soviets and had manned the wars of the 1990s were to increasingly limit the space for ordinary civic and economic life. The trust of Afghans in their future increasingly wavered.

The first steps to put Afghanistan back on track have been taken.

President Obama has pledged to put governance and accountability as a central prism of the effort, recognising the desires of ordinary Afghans. The new ISAF military command has taken a serious look at the type of Afghan security forces – army, police and intelligence – that will be required for Afghans to secure themselves, and the type of support that will be necessary to train them. It has also been clarified that, in keeping with the counterinsurgency doctrine, the essential mission of any soldier will be to protect the population.

But as the same counterinsurgency doctrine recognises, stability – and therefore an exit strategy for the international military – requires the citizens of a country to be governed legitimately and for there to be an economy that will provide them a basic living. We are not talking Switzerland or Valhalla, but the basic responsibilities of protecting the population, and providing the environment in which Afghans can meet their aspirations to live ordinary lives.

Building the security that will allow for a safe exit therefore rests on three additional building blocks. The first is a government bound by rule of law; public order in any country rests on more than just an army and a police force. As President Obama set out during his recent visit to Ghana, "In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society." Rule of law is far from an impossible dream in Afghanistan; notions of justice and fairness are deeply rooted in Afghan culture. Guidebooks from the 1950s and 60s show a remarkably orderly place, and when I travelled across the country in 2002 I found civil servants in all provinces dutifully administering schools, utilities and finance offices. In 2002, a group of Afghans were able to reenergise and reestablish basic services. And it remains the key desire of nearly all Afghans I talk to to create the basic institutions that will allow them to live peacefully.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the entry point to good governance is revenue, and one of the most important military jobs may be to protect the revenue streams of the country: the mines, customs posts and land deals that could be generating tens of billions of dollars a year in revenue for the Afghan treasury, significantly decreasing the need for foreign taxpayers to underwrite the bills, as well as restoring the relationship of accountability between citizen taxpayer and government. In the short term, ensuring a level playing field in the upcoming elections will allow Afghans to make the choice that is in their interests, which is fundamental to Afghanistan's future.

The second block is to invest in the Afghan people. It is not us but they who will have to create and staff their own institutions. We focus far too much on "civilian surges", sending in foreign experts to tell Afghans what to do. But after now nearly three decades of conflict, there is a lost generation, and it is going to be necessary to invest in their education. When the Afghans prepared the first postwar budget in 2002, they were told that they had to prioritise primary education, because the Millenium Development Goals dictated that this was the priority, and they could therefore invest no money in secondary, tertiary education or vocational training. As a result, there was massive neglect of educating the next generation of Afghanistan's entrepreneurs, civil servants and citizens. To add insult to injury, people complain that "Afghans have no capacity" and spend billions of dollars on "experts" at multiple times the cost of training an Afghan teacher, doctor, or bricklayer. An urgent priority is to create an endowment – perhaps through a coalition of US, European and Middle Eastern foundations and philanthropists – to invest in the next generation of Afghans through their universities, technical colleges and agriculture schools.

The third priority is to create jobs. Afghanistan has an impressive natural wealth in its potential for agriculture, its mineral resources, and its young population who are desperate to earn a basic wage. Its marble supplies could rival Carrara's; its lapis and copper are the envy of Chile. Thriving mining, agriculture, jewellery and textile industries are not beyond reach. To realise this potential, a coalition of international banks and political risk insurers could put the financing together to provide entrepreneurs with the necessary tools to take this forward.

Clare Lockhart, the author, with Ashraf Ghani, of Fixing Failed States (OUP)