These attempts to win hearts and minds are futile

At the grim milestone of 200 British military deaths in Afghanistan, it’s time to face up to what the mission can achieve. This Thursday voters will go to the polling stations for the country’s presidential election; and two days ago, highlighting the dangers they will face, a massive suicide car bomb ripped through the heart of the capital, Kabul, killing seven.

Despite small signs of progress, and the sabre-rattling of ministers, it is becoming increasingly clear that our soldiers can do little more than hold a state of stalemate. Privately, diplomats in Kabul and politicians from all British parties will tell you little different.

It is time to acknowledge that the international approach is based on a fundamental misdiagnosis – seeing the insurgency as the disease, rather than the symptom of a deeper disorder.

I’ve spoken to countless Afghans over the past two and half years, while working in the country as an NGO policy adviser, and their views are incredibly diverse. But on some things they are universally agreed: they have been let down by us, and by their leaders.

Parts of the Afghan state do function, and there have been improvements in service delivery – for example, in health and education. But see it through Afghan eyes: a whole generation has watched as the US engineered or connived in the empowerment of the same warlords, commanders and criminals who tore their country apart. Various Afghans have recently told me that those who attacked and stole from them, and destroyed their villages, are now in power.

The west’s «light footprint» has not only meant that much less has been delivered than promised. Our engagement has been hampered by perpetual short-termism. It has been a triumph of political expediency over state-building. Yet this was the very foundation of the international approach. Small wonder that President Karzai – with his sinister electoral allies – has done likewise.

For these reasons, military efforts to win «hearts and minds» with assistance projects – on which the US spends more than the Afghan health and education budgets combined – are futile. General Petraeus’s much-lauded counter-insurgency doctrine says: «Dollars are ammunition.» Afghans aren’t so easily bought.

It’s not just that much of the money flows back to donor countries in profits and salaries, or lines the pockets of the mafia elite. It’s not only the broader issue of waste: consultants tell you with despair of their pointless projects, such as drafting a complex derivatives law or establishing an obsolete business federation, or a multimillion-dollar building programme with no clear objectives. It is that Afghans, especially in the south and south-east, have not been given a credible alternative to the Taliban.

Consider the history of outside interference; the Afghans’ proud independence and mistrust of foreign forces; the Allied air-strikes that kill and maim the innocent; unremitting poverty, despite the promise of change; the masses of illiterate, unemployed young men, with families to feed; and Islamist propaganda.

In these circumstances, and set against the systematic terror and intimidation used by insurgents – who execute two Afghans every three days – why should they support a government seen as corrupt and unjust?

There is little the western military can do to change this; indeed, its troops prop up the government. Killing insurgents won’t kill the insurgency, but neither can we kill it with kindness. We pour billions of dollars into winning hearts and minds, yet we’re still losing them. There is only one way to change the equation: offer Afghans something they can believe in.

Travelling across the country, you hear of official positions being traded like commodities: the provincial police chief who paid $50,000 for his job, and recouped the same amount in trafficking bribes in his first week. Afghans don’t expect five-star public services, but they do expect leaders who will serve them, and who respect rudimentary standards of governance and justice.

Of course, they constantly weigh up which way things will go – they have sons and daughters to protect – and that is why our troops must be there for the duration. But we must accept the limits of what our soldiers can do. We should stop pandering to the powerful, and ensure root-and-branch reform of the state. If Afghans had leaders and institutions they could trust, the tide could be turned against the insurgents.

Faced with an intractable conflict, some – such as foreign secretary David Miliband and the UN’s Kai Eide – have pushed for talks with the Taliban. They know we can’t fight or buy our way out of the conflict, but neither can we talk our way out. It is right to reach out to the lower ranks of the insurgency, while trying to reintegrate them into society, and far more must be done to address local conflicts and grievances. But cutting deals with militant commanders is a high-risk strategy.

If deals are seen to reward violence, or empower thugs or criminals, we will simply be repeating the same mistakes that fuelled the fighting. And what concessions might the deals involve? We have fallen short on reconstruction; we must not retreat on basic human rights, already under threat.

The priority should be reaching out to ordinary Afghans. Like all of us, they want to be able to earn a living in safety, to have access to decent healthcare and schooling – for boys and girls – and they want law and order.

I spoke to an elder in a central province who had lost a daughter to preventable diseases in each of the past three years. If the government would stop taking from the people, and start delivering, he told me, they would have hope. If the people didn’t believe it was all God’s will, he added wryly, they would long since have lost their minds.

The director of the department for agriculture in Badakhshan – a northern province whose 800,000 inhabitants depend largely on agriculture – recently told me his annual budget was $20,000. It was just enough to cover his running costs. Likewise, most provincial departments of water and energy I’ve been to have no running water or electricity.

The focus should be on building a functioning, just and democratic state, in the provinces as well as in Kabul. It requires rigorous, determined and long-term efforts, combined with vast improvements in the delivery of aid. It is daunting and difficult, but the alternatives are illusory. It is by serving Afghan interests that we will secure our own.

Matt Waldman, the former Head of Policy and advocacy for Oxfam International in Afghanistan.