Compared to post-invasion Iraq, Afghanistan seems a success story; but first impressions can be misleading. The country remains on a knife-edge, and the loss of momentum in its transition from the Taliban regime puts Afghanistan at grave risk of relapsing into dangerous insecurity. Although many Afghans have contributed courageously to rescuing their country, and some key benchmarks have been achieved, Afghanistan continues to face severe difficulties. Elite political competition is fierce, and able ministers have been removed when deemed to be occupying too much of the limelight. President Hamid Karzai, while articulate and incorruptible, remains wedded to a politics of bargaining and networking that has seen unappetising figures promoted to positions they have then abused. This has created space for the resurgence of the Taliban in the south, with Pakistani backing. The new Afghan National Army is proving too expensive to be locally sustainable, and the police force offers only a pale shadow of what is needed.
The predominance of opium in the economy poses the risk that Afghanistan could become a narco-state, and on a range of human development indicators it remains one of the world's poorest countries, with popular frustration rising. While foreign governments have contributed large sums to reconstruction, too much money has gone to Western contractors, at the expense of local capacity. It is not too late to turn things around, but time is running short. Only if the Afghan government re-focuses on the delivery of competent, clean and inclusive governance, and the wider world ensures that its commitments match its rhetoric, is it at all likely that disaster can be avoided.
Professor William Maley is Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at ANU, Canberra and taught for many years in the School of Politics, Australian Defence Force Academy. He has written dozens of articles and several books on Afghanistan, including Fundamentalism Reborn: Afghanistan and the Taliban (Hurst, 1998), which he conceived and edited.