Our Responsibility to Afghanistan

07/21/2010 02:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The great Western retreat from Afghanistan has begun. Although the results of Tuesday's Kabul conference will be presented a roadmap for the country's future, it is probably not a future which many countries expect to play a major role in. Our men and women in uniform are coming home. But the international community must remain engaged in Afghanistan beyond 2014. We can't just wash the country off our hands.

Preparing for an era in which the Afghan government takes charge is a good thing. The Western commitment to direct Afghanistan's political, economic and security sectors could not obviously be open-ended, and establishing a clear series of targets and process for handing over the country to its rightful rulers is a long-overdue process.

But as countries head for the exit, they must avoid tripping at the door. At the Kabul conference, the international community agreed that Afghan forces will assume control of the provinces from NATO by 2014, and that a greater proportion of aid money will flow through the Afghan government's coffers. Yet Kabul is less a plan in itself than the start of a process of planning, and care must be taken over the coming months and years to further elaborate the way in which Afghanistan's government is expected to stand on its own feet.

One of the first challenges that must be resolved is how to deal with the Taliban. The final communiqué from Kabul called for a reconciliation and reintegration program to be opened to all members of the Taliban, on condition that they renounce violence, have no links to international terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, and respect the Afghan constitution. Particular attention was paid to the need to respect the rights of Afghanistan's women in any future settlement with the Taliban, who spent years brutalizing women in the name of their ultra-conservative ideology.

Engaging the Taliban is likely to require compromises, and Western diplomats are under a great deal of pressure to produce results quickly. It is not unthinkable that they may attempt to fudge the human rights provisions of Afghanistan's constitution when the time comes to do a deal, throwing women and civil society under the bus in the name of security. This impulse must be resisted. It is not only a moral imperative, it is simply essential to Afghanistan's future peace and prosperity. As Hillary Clinton said this week: "if these groups are fully empowered to help build a just and lasting peace, they will help do so. If they are silenced and pushed to the margins of Afghan society, the prospects for peace and justice will be subverted."

Having said that, there must be no diversion from the focus on building security. In Kabul there was much talk of the need to tackle the economic and social conditions which lead to radicalization in Afghan society. This is critically important, and offers the only long-term solution to Afghanistan's three decades of woe.

But before talking about the long-term, we must deal with the immediate crisis. NATO casualties are at record highs, with more than 370 killed so far this year compared to 520 in 2009. The Taliban control much of southern Afghanistan, many of the highways linking major cities, and much of the provinces surrounding Kabul. As if reminder were needed of the scale of the resistance, rocket fire diverted the plane carrying UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he arrived for the conference.

Ultimately, until a sound security framework is established within which the Afghan government can operate, infrastructural and social gains will come to naught. That's the lesson of a host of other conflicts, including Sudan, Ethiopia and Chechnya. The first priority of any government worth its name -- and the support of its people -- is to protect them. If the Taliban are not pushed back to a more manageable stretch of territory, then the government cannot consolidate its authority and carry out the kind of strategic, sustainable development the country needs. Its position will be deeply precarious come 2014, and if we want to avoid Hamid Karzai's administration befalling the same fate of Afghanistan's post-Soviet government in 1992, then a military surge must still take priority over a civilian one.

Lastly, most crucially, the international community must remain engaged beyond 2014. Allowing an orderly withdrawal of the bulk of combat forces should not allow policy-makers to detach themselves from the country's fate. Unreasonable public expectations of a new peace dividend should also be firmly dampened. The justifications for the Afghan mission have not changed, and the vital importance of this mission succeeding -- not just for the Afghan people, but for international security itself -- must be stated again and again. 2014 is not the end. It is a new chapter in Afghanistan's history, and we have our part to play.

Dex Torricke-Barton is an international security analyst and consultant for the United Nations. The views expressed in this article do not represent UN policy.