Apart from 2014, there are now two more dates inextricably linked with Afghanistan’s future. One is 2024 — decided on by the Nato allies, led by the United States of America, as the final date to which the $4.1 billion annual military aid could be stretched. The other is 2018. Technically, that is when the $4 billion annual civilian aid — promised by the international donors of Afghanistan at the recent conference in Tokyo — is expected to end. Both the dates ought to put at rest the niggling worry of the Afghanistan president, Hamid Karzai, that he and his country would be abandoned by the international forces after 2014. The US’s strategic pact with Afghanistan that promises it substantial aid together with the status of a major non-Nato ally, and now the promise of sustained funding of development projects should assure Afghanistan that it stands a chance of avoiding the difficult times that followed the Soviet withdrawal. But the people of Afghanistan seem less enthused about the future possibilities than either Mr Karzai or his friends. For one, they are acquainted with the pitfalls of an economy run entirely on aid. It may have temporarily increased the per capita income, lowered mortality rates and improved access to education, but it has trebled the endemic vices of Afghan society. Corruption has reached an all-time high in a country that has always had power concentrated in the hands of the feudal elite and the drug mafia. International aid, channelled through the existing power structures, has strengthened these structures without allaying the basic conditions for the people. Naturally, the Taliban, who threaten these structures, continue to hold out an attractive option for the people. This truth lies behind the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.
Unless the Afghanistan government and its foreign allies address this problem, foreign aid will neither resuscitate the economy nor rid the country of violence. Afghanistan’s international donors have tried to make the government accountable by tying 20 per cent of the funds to its action against corruption. But together with the management of funds, the donors ought to refocus on institution-building. That alone will ensure that Afghanistan has a representative and responsive government. That would also require donors to unlearn their habit of propping up unpopular governments.