Afghans wait, still, for an end to the pain

The few signs of hope have been overshadowed by a resurgent Taliban, the West's promises lie broken - and constant death looms.

A dear friend of mine in Kabul grew up in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He was in his early 20s during those years and sold spools of thread on the streets to feed his siblings and parents. His job allowed him to observe scenes of the religious police patrolling the streets, harassing and arresting people for listening to music or wearing white socks.

He did a very brave and perhaps foolhardy thing. At night, when he went home to his family's flat, he wrote down in a notebook every incident he witnessed. The book was buried in a patch of ground outside the building. It was addressed to President Bill Clinton, Washington, USA. If he had been caught the Taliban would have flogged him to death. The day before he was going to smuggle the book to Pakistan and onward to friends in America was September 11 2001.

Today, my American-loving friend no longer believes in America's moral authority in saving his benighted country. Nine years of failure, chaos and incompetence has put an end to his idealism. "The Americans care nothing for us and they've done nothing for us," he told me the last time I saw him. He drives to work every morning on Kabul's unpaved and pot-holed streets, past refugees living in tents. The billions of dollars in western taxpayers' money promised to the Afghan people have somehow not been enough to clear the mountains of rubbish piled on every street corner. And that is the capital. Imagine what the rest of the country is like.

For anyone paying even a small amount of attention to the coverage of this protracted conflict, the Wikileaks revelations offered nothing new. But the documents seem to have galvanised opposition to the war. For the left, they are confirmation of a neo-imperialist occupation waged by America's military-industrial complex bent on global domination, so the best thing is to leave right away. The right's perspective is cast in a more racist overtone. The Afghans, a warmongering people hardwired to fight, do not deserve the civilising influence of western democracies, so the best thing is to leave.

Afghanistan's reality is sadder and more complicated than that. What the leaks don't reveal is a broken country struggling to put itself together amidst great sorrow. Afghanistan confounds easy labels and narratives. A few years ago I travelled to Jalalabad to gauge the mood among women on the eve of the parliamentary election. I came across several families left homeless because a local strongman had taken a liking to their houses and evicted them. He was a thug, but a powerful one, backed with arms and men because he promised the government and the Americans he would fight any Taliban insurgent who dared cross into Jalalabad. I foolishly kept asking one of the women what she thought of democracy now that she had the right to vote. I don't remember her answer I don't think she gave one, because she was pathetically clutching her pots and pillows and glancing towards the street to see if her family's tormentors had returned.

They had, and she asked me to leave. I still remember the terror in her small brown eyes. The insurgency's leaders are quick to exploit the fact that many of the warlords who prey on the population have been backed by America and its allies. The Taliban have now got the upper hand not because they are a strong movement admired by the population, but because the West's priorities are not the same as those of the Afghans.

The United Nations, among others, have pointed out that two-thirds of the violence against civilians has been caused by the Taliban and other insurgents. It does not, however, let Nato soldiers off the hook for killing innocent civilians. Lessons from history can be overlearned. Afghanistan is not Vietnam. For the British it is not the winter of 1842 with the Pashtuns attacking soldiers on the infamous retreat from Kabul. The total number of deaths of soldiers don't amount to a fraction of those killed in Vietnam or during the Great Game.

The poems of Rudyard Kipling and references to the last troop airlifted from Saigon are meaningless to a unique and modern conflict in which 40 countries are involved. But there is little co-ordinated effort. There is evenless appetite among their politicians to prosecute a war in a coherent and responsible manner. That Afghans must take responsibility for their own security is a much repeated mantra. The Germans were initially put in charge of training the national police, but the trainers were not allowed to leave Kabul without express permission from Berlin, which somewhat hampered the effort. The Afghan police are viewed as corrupt and beyond repair. The Americans have had to take over and start again.

Italian soldiers were responsible for securing Sarobi in the east, but apparently bribed Taliban commanders not to attack them - a peacekeeping tactic they failed to tell the French about, who took over and lost 10 soldiers in one day in 2008. This type of "force protection" is echoed in many forms across the country by the Spanish, Dutch, and others. And so these soldiers continue to die needlessly and Afghans are blamed because they are supposedly implacable warriors or simply resisting the crusading occupation.

What would happen if there were a full-scale withdrawal? The war's supporters say the country would revert to a breeding ground for terrorists. Perhaps. There is one theory that Mullah Omar regrets giving Osama bin Laden refuge because his regime could well be still in power. The north, which has always resisted the Taliban, may be preparing for their old enemies to return to Kabul, raising the spectre of a civil war.

But predicting the future in Afghanistan is a fool's game. In the meantime, people go about their lives the best they can, sometimes with the help of outsiders. A few weeks ago I had dinner in Dubai with Jonathan Hoffman, an American teacher who spends his summer holidays building schools for boys and girls in central Afghanistan with the help of an Afghan friend who is also a parliamentarian. This year, Mr Hoffman's friends and neighbours in Vermont raised $30,000 for the cause. He is distributing the cash to village elders, who decide where the schools will be built, and they hire local men to bring stones down from the mountains to construct the one-room schoolhouses.

But for others, the promises of the West have come to mean nothing. Shukria Barakzai, a brave MP and one of the most well-known faces to western journalists, told me a year ago that after many years she had realised western democracies paid much lip service to Afghan women but ultimately they were on their own. "No one will help us, we know this now," she said, rather bitterly. And yet, for a hint of what direction Afghan women want their country to head in, the registration of candidates for September's parliamentary election offers a clue. So far, 2,635 candidates have registered, including 400 women. They will easily exceed the quota of 68 seats reserved for female parliamentarians.

As for my American-loving friend who wrote his own Taliban diaries for Bill Clinton, he is trying to get paperwork together to move his family to Dubai. He no longer believes in his country's future.