Con Coughlin: Without support, Afghanistan will revert to anarchy
Avisit to the British war cemetery in Kabul this week was a deeply humbling experience.
Set into the crumbling, whitewashed walls is a poignant memorial to all the brave men and women who have lost their lives fighting for a cause few these days either comprehend or support. The plaque listing their names is next to a monument to the victims of another era of British military involvement in Afghanistan -- those who perished in our two ill-fated military interventions in the 19th century.
There had been 150 neatly marked graves in the cemetery of those who fought in the campaigns of 1839-1842 and 1879-1881, but when British troops returned to Kabul in 2001, following the overthrow of the Taliban, they found the cemetery had been desecrated, the headstones vandalised -- no doubt the doing of Taliban sympathisers. The headstones have since been lovingly restored.
But I am struck by this awful thought: unless there is a radical change in the way the conflict is going, the well-tended graveyard may once again end up being pulled apart by a resurgent Taliban.
When I entered the cemetery, the total number of British war dead in Afghanistan stood at 405; by the time I left an hour later, that had risen to 407. Two soldiers had been shot dead by an Afghan officer who had, apparently, taken exception to their refusal to grant him permission to enter the British base at Lashkar Gar because he did not have proper accreditation.
What is particularly depressing about this "green on blue" incident -- in Nato-speak, the Afghans are "green" and Nato soldiers are "blue" -- is that one of the main reasons Britain still has a division deployed to southern Afghanistan is to help transform the native security forces into a credible fighting unit.
If troops are to be withdrawn from harm's way, then the Afghans need to reach a level of competence and effectiveness that enables them to take charge of their country's security, rather than relying on a motley collection of foreign forces -- there are currently 50 nations contributing to Nato's mission -- to do the job for them.
Why not let them sort out their own mess, I hear you cry? We have paid a high enough price for this benighted country, and all the thanks we get is Afghans turning their guns on our soldiers. If only it were that easy.
Politicians on both side of the Atlantic are determined that, at the very latest, all Nato combat operations will have ceased by the end of 2014. The only problem with this laudable plan is that, as things stand, there is no realistic prospect of the Afghans being in a position to take care of themselves in two years' time. For a start, their security and police forces, though vastly improved from the rabble inherited by Nato when it first deployed to the country in the summer of 2006, rely heavily on the backing of Western troops -- primarily American and British -- to conduct missions.
And it is likely that they are going to need foreign support well beyond the proposed withdrawal date. Afghan army recruits have proved themselves to be good fighters, but sustaining a competent military operation requires more than good fighting qualities: logistics, intelligence and air support also have a crucial role to play.
"It is wishful thinking to think the Afghans can stand on their own when we finish fighting in 2014," a senior Nato official told me in Kabul.
There is certainly no suggestion that the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies are on the point of renouncing their campaign of terror against the West and allowing Afghanistan to settle back into its former role as Central Asia's main trading hub.
The almost daily attacks on Nato forces suggest the Taliban has no desire to commit to peace negotiations, while the recent spate of shootings by an al-Qa'ida gunman in Toulouse has again highlighted the value of southern Afghanistan as a training centre for Islamist militants. Mohamed Merah, the 24-year-old Frenchman who killed seven people during a week-long shooting spree, visited Kandahar as recently as 2010, as part of his rite of passage from petty criminal to full-blown al-Qa'ida terrorist.
Intelligence officials have told me that there are hundreds of al-Qa'ida sympathisers in Pakistan just waiting for the opportunity to return to Afghanistan and re-establish the training camps that were used to mastermind the September 11 attacks.
The other area where the West must demonstrate its commitment after 2014 is in its willingness to continue financing the Afghan government and military for at least another decade, until the country is able to develop its economy to the point where it can pay for itself. Compared to the tens of billions of dollars that have poured in during the past decade, the cost of post-2014 support is a relatively modest $4.3bn (€3.2bn).
But such is the general mood of apathy in the West that it is proving difficult even to raise this sum ahead of May's Nato summit in Chicago, when the future of Western commitment will be discussed.
William Patey, who retired as Britain's ambassador to Kabul yesterday, told me when I visited him at his office at the heavily fortified British Embassy that "we should get out now" if we were not prepared, at the very least, to fund the Afghans until 2024.
Certainly, if Afghanistan is allowed to revert to its former anarchy, then many more deluded young men like Mohamed Merah will be making their way to al-Qa'ida training camps in the country.
And if that happens, then the sacrifices of the brave men and women who are commemorated in the military cemetery in Kabul will have been in vain. (© Daily Telegraph, London)