KABUL — A five-day visit to Afghanistan left me profoundly pessimistic about the accomplishments to date to stem the drain on international blood and treasure, yet convinced of the importance of not losing Afghanistan to the other side.

Kabul defined the pessimism: After more than seven years of massive security operations, travel in the capital city was permitted only in armored cars and if one wears a bulletproof vest.

Bamiyan defined the determination not to abandon the fight: Gaping hillside holes from the two giant Buddha statues, which stood as silent sentinels for more than 1,500 years before the Taliban destroyed them in an act of willful cultural vandalism.

The two pressing priorities are to transform the mission from a militarized to a civilian operation and to shift it from an externally directed one to a locally owned enterprise.

At present the capital and the country are fortified garrisons. Afghanistan is not merely under foreign occupation but feels quasi-colonized, with real power divided between the Afghan warlords and the American overlords.

The centerpiece of the political situation this year will be the presidential election Aug. 20. Although most expect Hamid Karzai to win, few are enthusiastic at the prospect of another five years of him. One puzzle is whether the Taliban will take part in the political process, perhaps in preparation for next year’s parliamentary elections. They could stay outside, waiting for the low-lying fruits of political victory to fall into their laps as the coterie around the president becomes increasingly more corrupt, powerless and ineffectual, and public cynicism and revulsion grow proportionately. Events in Pakistan show how an enfeebled government saps the morale of the people in standing up to the threat of the spreading Taliban.

There is agonizing debate over whether some people have joined the Taliban for reasons other than ideological fanaticism and can be weaned away from the path of militancy. Or will concessions and goodwill gestures of accommodation be seen as signs of weakness that serve merely to embolden the insurgency, as seems to have happened with the notorious deal between the government and the Taliban in Pakistan with respect to the once lovely Swat valley?

A second imponderable is whether the election will be seen as free and fair by the Afghans regardless of how international observers certify it. There is some concern that five tools or conditions will facilitate the manipulation of the machinery and process to the incumbent’s advantage and thereby compromise the integrity of the presidential election: • The Afghan Independent Election Commission, its name notwithstanding, has yet to establish its credibility as an independent body. • The Afghan National Police, widely reviled for corruption and shakedown habits, is a pliant tool in government hands.

• Provincial governors are appointed by the president and the chain of command extends to district administrators and police commanders. • The government enjoys the power of the purse and the revenue streams can be directed to serve electoral rather than development goals. • No independent, robust media subject the government to critical scrutiny and disseminate alternative political platforms and opinions.

The reality of recent reversals on human rights, civil liberties and press freedoms is hard to miss. The passage of the notorious Shariah law with its antediluvian views on the wifely duty to provide sex on tap for husbands is but one example; the jailing of journalists for entirely innocuous behavior is another. Westerners will lose the will to fight in Afghanistan if they see the government’s behavior sliding to match the Taliban approach to governance.

The Rumsfeld instrument of combining security, development and governance was the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). While the logic is understandable — and individual PRTs do a marvelous job in unforgiving environments — it does militate against moving from the military to the civilian end of the spectrum of international engagement as real power is appropriated by the PRTs at the local level.

A retreat from building the institutions of state could prove fatal to the cause of creating and leaving behind a stable polity and a sound economy. This includes strengthening the police, judicial and criminal justice systems, instilling discipline and professionalism, paying adequate salaries so they don’t take bribes out of economic necessity, and accentuating national as opposed to sectarian identity.

The army needs to be built up into a professional and national force too. But history shows that to succeed, a counterinsurgency operation must be led by the police, not the military.

The strengthened U.S. military presence and activity may be necessary, for no other country seems willing to take up the security slack. But it does come with heightened risk of an increased level of civilian casualties and culturally offensive behavior. Just as there is a need to shift from a heavy military to a major civilian footprint, so at some stage the lead international actor should be the United Nations. For all its faults, it has no peer competitor in nation building.

The U.N. is also better placed to engage the necessary regional players like China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India. Insurgents cannot be defeated if they enjoy sanctuary in a neighboring country. Afghanistan’s battle space straddles the border with Pakistan. As long as Pakistan feeds on its paranoia of India being the greater threat, both Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain volatile.

Knowing what we do of Taliban rule in Afghanistan for many years, having been given a foretaste of what to expect in Pakistan if they manage to capture power there with the stomach-churning video of a young woman being publicly flogged for immoral acts real or imagined, bearing in mind that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and mindful of the grave threat that a Taliban-ruled Pakistan would pose to India with its own 150 million Muslims, the one option we do not have is to give up.

Ramesh Thakur is the founding director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.