I first went to Afghanistan in 1971 as a newly minted graduate driving overland to India on the hippie trail. It was a journey through time. The city of Herat, in the west of the country, was completely dark when I arrived at night from Iran. In Kabul, lighting was restricted to a few streets. Traffic jams were caused by donkeys and camels, not cars. Today’s Afghans talk with nostalgia of those days, the “king’s time”: Mohammed Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s last emir, presided over a period of comparative stability from 1933 to 1973. In reality, given the country’s low life expectancy, few actually remember it.

I returned in August this year as a military historian with a life-long interest in the changing character of war, and in Britain’s recent strategy. I wanted to see how the country was faring two years after the last British combat troops left Afghanistan. 

Kabul today shows that war can be good for growth. Two major international carriers run fully booked flights daily into the city. Its roads have been transformed and the rubbish has been reduced. Multi-storeyed blocks of air-conditioned flats raise the skyline. Its population has increased about fivefold from a base of one million in 2001 to about five million (although statistics, as Afghans admit, are unreliable). Television channels have multiplied and mobile phones are universal. Marriages in Afghanistan are major events, and the night sky over Kabul is dominated by the blues, reds and greens of the massive wedding halls.

I also had a personal connection: my cousin, Oscar Goldfinger, is a member of the 2nd Royal Gurkha Rifles, and had been sent to Kabul with his regiment in April. The more senior Gurkhas, who first came here in 2002, can see the difference in the city. My cousin was surprised by Kabul’s relative normality after the drumbeat of news that had shaped his youth. Recently commissioned, he was about to complete his first tour. “I see a city of people who are free to conduct their daily lives largely as they wish — and I say that from the bubble of an armoured vehicle as I drive through,” he told me. “You see shop sellers in the street. You see women walking, whether in full burka dress or in more contemporary modern western dress. You see those same women picking their children up from school unaccompanied. And you see children — both boys and girls — attending school and having a great time, and laughing and dancing and singing in the street.”

For his seniors, this is the reward for the hard work of the previous decade and a half. His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Murray, does not minimise the dangers of terrorism, although the number of actual attacks is low compared with the number of threats reported. At the halfway point in his eight-month tour, his regiment had dealt with no attacks but its job was the security of Nato’s Kabul force, not that of the city as a whole. There the story is more mixed. Five years ago (I came back in 2011 and again in 2012), I completed the short journey from the airport to Nato’s headquarters in the “Green Zone” by road; in August I did it by helicopter. While most attacks are thwarted, some have achieved so-called spectacular effects, particularly against softer and easier targets. Just before I arrived, Isis claimed responsibility for a devastating assault on a peaceful demonstration, and while I was there two members of staff at the American University were kidnapped. Afghans regularly change their routines, cars and even homes to minimise the opportunities for terrorists.

I was interested in what had changed in Kabul since the end of 2014, when Nato’s mission shifted. In 2011 the size of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), about 130,000 troops, had made the alliance the most effective player in town, and it took the fight to the Taliban. Today, under the banners of Nato’s Resolute Support mission and of the US’s Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the alliance musters about 16,000 troops and its mission is to train, advise and assist the Afghans. The job of the Gurkhas in Kabul is to protect not the local population but the Nato soldiers who mentor Afghan soldiers. Nato is still spending treasure in Afghanistan — approaching $5bn annually on its security forces alone — but it is determined not to expend any more blood. 

Brigadier General Charlie Cleveland of the US army, who is responsible for Nato communications in Afghanistan, described 2015 as a “very difficult year for the Afghans. They didn’t collapse but they took a lot of casualties.” Some say about 11,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded. From across the frontier, Pakistan’s army pushed Taliban groups into eastern Afghanistan, while Isis renewed the threat of global terrorism. The Afghan army was being rebuilt at the same time as it was battling local insurgents and regional, Pakistani and international terrorists, often in 15 theatres at the same time. 

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By the end of 2015, Afghanistan seemed to be spiralling out of control, and none of its international partners was paying much attention. The current UK National Security Strategy did no more than name-check the country. Most serious of all, the US looked as though it might not extend its troop commitment of 5,500 beyond December 2016, or would postpone a decision until after the presidential election. General Philip Breedlove, then Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, warned Barack Obama that he confronted mission failure in Afghanistan. 

In January this year, Obama authorised US forces to target Isis in Afghanistan. Nato was worried that America’s global war against terrorism might take the US in a different direction from the nation-building aspirations of its European partners. In practice, Obama has given the alliance a sword to accompany its shield. In May, when a drone strike killed Akhtar Mansoor, Mullah Omar’s successor as leader of the Taliban, the American readiness to act inside Pakistan boosted the confidence of the Afghans, who see the threat to their security as overwhelmingly external. On July 6, Obama announced that he would maintain US forces at 8,400, thus also guaranteeing the shield. On July 9, the Nato summit in Warsaw followed suit, extending troop commitments for a further year and funding till 2020.

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The mood today is much more upbeat. I went to Shorabak (better known to the British as Camp Bastion) on a day when the Kabul media was reporting the possible fall of Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital. I was last there in 2012, when it bustled with Nato activity. Now it is like a lost city in the desert, although Afghanistan’s 215 Corps lives in permanent accommodation (in itself a sign of resolve), no longer in tents. 

In 2012, the corps’ charismatic, Russian-trained commander Sayed Malook rolled out a map on the floor and assembled us round it for his briefing. It was inspirational but more reminiscent of Montgomery in north Africa than a 21st-century commander. When we arrived in August, his successor was in Lashkar Gah with the provincial governor but his deputy sat in a modern command headquarters, with live feeds to his wall-mounted situation map. His US mentor, Brigadier General Andrew Rohling, said: “The most memorable thing of this tour has been the ability of the corps commander here to do more than sit in his office with three cellphones and a button to the tea man! So he’s been able to use a battle-tracking system, his own drone to co-ordinate his movements, his helicopters and his guys on the ground.”

The Afghans put the Taliban strength in Helmand at more than 7,000; Rohling thought the hard core was only 100. If the difference is bridgeable it can only be explained by what Rohling calls “$10 terrorists”: opportunists who fight for the money, not the cause. Poppy provides the obvious alternative source of income, and the 2016 Helmand crop promises to be one of the biggest ever. But the Afghans have more immediate priorities than counter-narcotics. Drugs are not Rohling’s responsibility, although he acknowledges: “If we could get a thriving economy that wasn’t drug-based, there would be less opportunities for local unemployed youth to join the Taliban. Would more development get us there? It would, but we’ve got to have some security first to get the development.”

Nato’s change of mission had economic consequences, which themselves undermined security. The alliance had brought with it 450,000 contractors, who spent money in the country and who employed Afghans as guards, interpreters, drivers, guides and cooks. When the Isaf mission ended, growth fell to 1.3 per cent and unemployment rose to a high of 40 per cent. Crime has soared. In 2010 the Halo Trust, the NGO committed to the removal of legacy minefields, participated in a programme to reconcile insurgents. De-mining created jobs and enabled Afghan peasants to till previously contaminated ground. But, as international attention turned elsewhere, Halo’s Afghan funding peaked. The task it confronts today means it could employ a workforce of 4,000 but, instead, it has had to lay off around 1,000 trained Afghan de-miners. Each Afghan in employment is reckoned to support eight to 10 dependants. Land goes unploughed, and Halo finds its teams targeted for the cash value of the equipment they use.

What matters now is the end state, not the end date. It used to be said that Nato had the watches but the Taliban had the time. That was particularly the case when Obama authorised an American “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009 but promptly undermined its efficacy by imposing a deadline for withdrawal. Today, as Lt Col Murray put it: “Time doesn’t necessarily act to the Taliban’s advantage. The longer they perform as a force of bad rather than a force for good, the harder it is for them to present themselves as a credible alternative to the elected government, which has been elected now three times since the Taliban regime.” From the perspective of those I spoke to on this visit, too many Afghans, men as well as women, have a stake in their country’s modernisation to be ready to submit once again to Taliban rule. 

The big question is how far Kabul represents the country as a whole. Progress in the centre may not be matched on the periphery, where the state is struggling, as so often in Afghanistan’s history, to assert both its writ and its monopoly of force. “But what’s always been interesting,” as Brig Gen Cleveland observed, is that “despite a lot of the ethnic divisions, you’ve never seen a strong movement to break away, to have a Pashtunistan or to have a northern Tajikistan. At the end of the day, people want to keep the borders as they are.” Much of the narrative of the past four decades, with its talk of a failed state, takes insufficient account of Afghan nationalism.

I drove north from Kabul to the beautiful Panjshir valley, the most peaceful province in today’s Afghanistan. Here, in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, a massive monument is under construction to honour Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance against the Soviet Union, who was murdered by al-Qaeda in 2001. His iconic portrait is even more in evidence on street hoardings and roundabouts in Kabul than it was in 2012. Differences between Afghans — Massoud, after all, fought a civil war against other Afghans, both communist and Taliban — are increasingly glossed over in a message of unity whose role model is “the lion of Panjshir”.

Nowhere is the determination to stress the primacy of national identity more evident than in the young cadets of the Afghan National Army Officer Academy at Qargha, just outside Kabul. Here, Britain does the mentoring. With three intakes a year, it is designed to produce 1,140 officers annually, of whom 90 are women. The latter have vital roles when fighting a “war amongst the people”, especially in an Islamic state; they can conduct searches on women and in houses, when men cannot. 

The army faces two challenges. The first is its function. Nato mentors are optimising it to counter insurgents and maintain domestic order. General Sher Mohammad Karimi, the chief of staff between 2010 and 2014, says that those are jobs for the police. Afghanistan’s recent problems, its leaders argue, have come from outside, not from within: first from Russia, then from Pakistan and increasingly (so government figures stress, although Nato mentors are less sure) from Iran. It therefore needs an army capable of guaranteeing its independence, with the full panoply of modern technologies. Karimi wants artillery, air defence and radar, and he is not alone. These are awkward demands for Nato as its members seek a stable Pakistan and a normalisation of relations with Iran, but after a fitful start Afghanistan is now getting some of them, including transport aircraft and Russian (and shortly Indian) helicopters. 

Nato’s deputy air commander, the RAF’s Air Commodore Jonathan Dixon, explains that the air force has to be part of the overall Afghan strategy “because it has the ability to reach areas of Afghanistan that might otherwise be difficult to reach by land”. 

Karimi’s aspiration for fully-fledged professional forces raises a second spectre. Americans believe that military professionalism fosters political neutrality. This is an educational goal at Qargha, and one Karimi endorses. Qargha is producing young officers who expect to be promoted on merit. Above them are seniors with much more diverse backgrounds: a few like Karimi himself, who was at Sandhurst, more who were trained by the Russians, and many who learnt their trade as mujahideen commanders with Massoud. “It is not uncommon at all to go into a room and see a commander who was trained by the Soviets and his deputy who was a mujahideen,” says Cleveland. “They’re aligned now completely against the Taliban.” But Karimi is concerned about the young, ambitious officer who is commanded by a superior who has no professional education and may even be illiterate. 

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A strong army in a weak state will struggle to remain apolitical, especially when its immediate task is domestic security. During my visit, the leaders of the national unity government were at odds: the chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, attacked the president, Ashraf Ghani, for his failure to consult on ministerial appointments and to revise the constitution. Since 2014, with senior military appointments made on political grounds, factionalism has resurfaced.

The army has faced setbacks but not lasting defeats. Afghanistan has bedded in a national security council, and adopted a “sustainable security strategy”, which prevents it dissipating resources by trying to be everywhere at once. Ghani’s priority has been to secure the major cities, towns and highways, and where they have been lost — as Kunduz was in 2015 — to regain them. The deal with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar this September could precipitate a more general Taliban move to the peace table. The talk of progress, a word used too often not to generate western cynicism, is evidence of Afghans’ hope. 

The challenge for the international community is to buy into that mood. “You spend millions of dollars, billions of dollars,” Karimi says, “you don’t want to throw it into the river, do you?” Lt Col Murray’s response should reassure him: “My personal view is that the longer Nato can endure here, the greater our chances of achieving our strategic goals on behalf of the international community.” 

Sir Hew Strachan is a professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews

Photographs: Capt Ben Norfield, Royal Gurkha Rifles; Catriona J Oliphant/ChromeRadio

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