Our last chance to do right by Afghanistan

I remember interviewing two young Helmand farmers in early 2006. They had travelled to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, from the remote north of the province looking for work.

I wanted to ask them about the impending arrival of British Forces. As I ran through my questions their faces were blank. They had not heard of British soldiers coming to Helmand, nor had they heard of a country called Britain, its capital London or its famous export, the BBC.

In a country as remote, as impoverished and as poorly educated as Afghanistan, how much does it matter who the country’s president is, how he is elected and whether that election passes standards we regard as basic requirements for democracy?

In one sense it is of limited importance. Rural Afghans — and most of the populace is rural — have little direct contact with their Government. How much influence can a distant regime in Kabul have on the lives of Helmand farmers when it delivers almost no services and extracts no taxes?

Afghan society is hierarchical, largely tribal and based on systems of patronage (financed historically, as today, by Great Power donations). The closest most Afghans get to their Government is through the disbursement of largesse from the centre, channelled through local tribal chiefs and powerbrokers and tied to reciprocal local support.

Most Afghans were told whom to vote for in this summer’s elections by their community leaders, and have fairly limited knowledge of the particular platforms of the candidates — though it is worth noting that levels of political awareness are changing as modern media begin to reach even remote areas.

But if ideology appears to feature little in the calculation of many voters, this does not mean that ideals are not important. What has kept most Afghans signed up to Western intervention for the past eight years is the promise that the West’s presence will deliver three clear results: justice, a basic level of peace and security and, ultimately, the opportunity for economic betterment.

Ordinary Afghans are instinctively suspicious of the motives of foreigners, particularly non-Muslim ones, but by a clear majority in every opinion poll, they yearn for these goals. They welcomed Western forces in 2001 solely because they believed they could deliver them.

The Taleban Government offered people no hope of economic improvement. However, it did deliver a form of justice and security that, although far from pleasant to live under, was preferable to the war-torn anarchy that Afghanistan suffered in the early Nineties. Today, with the country beset by violence, those two choices have never been more finely balanced in the minds of Afghans.

This is why the legitimacy of the presidential elections and the government it produces do matter so much. When Afghanistan goes to the polls again on November 7, Hamid Karzai, the President, starts as the firm favourite. He would almost certainly win a fair election because he is the only candidate from the majority Pashtun ethnicity with some ability to reach across ethnic divisions. His victory remains the most likely result of the second ballot.

It was for this reason that some argued in favour of ignoring the fraud that took place in the first round. That would have been easy but counterproductive. If Western governments lose sight of the goal of a just government and collude blatantly in corruption, then they cede the high ground to the Taleban, and the fine balance between the two sides shifts slightly, but significantly.

Fortunately, despite signs that Western governments intended to duck the need for a second round of voting, that commitment to fair elections has now been made. It was courageous and important because Afghans are currently making a further calculation: they are trying to work out whether the West’s will to stay is collapsing. Are we about to abandon the promises made to the Afghan people in 2001? The Afghans have experienced this before in the late Eighties when the Soviet Union pronounced that the Najibullah Government could stand on its own and pulled out its forces.

Once Afghans believe that the West is going to withdraw, they will shift their support very quickly. It is a pattern with which they are only too familiar after 30 years of chronic instability. The south will throw its support fully behind the Taleban. The north will ready itself for a new civil war. Those within the flimsy Afghan Government will prepare an exit strategy for themselves and their families.

Afghanistan’s neighbours — Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Russia — all of whom have strategic interests in its fate are keenly observing what the Western allies intend to do. They have all nurtured proxy forces in the country in the past; the question for these neighbouring powers is whether to be more active.

In the case of the Pakistanis, that would mean ramping up their support for their own placemen, the Afghan Taleban (as distinct from the Pakistan Taleban that they are now fighting in Waziristan), against the potential threat of their enemy, India, increasing its influence in the country. Jihadists around the world would celebrate this increasing instability.

The West has probably its last chance to deliver a clear and decisive commitment to the Afghan people. That strategy needs to be built around a government that is legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people and bound to the clear goals that the West promised them in 2001. It then needs to be supported in a way that will convince Afghans that the West has the will to succeed. Otherwise there is no point in being there.

Tom Coghlan, the Times correspondent in Afghanistan until this year.