South Asia

What now for Afghanistan, 10 years on?

An Afghan boy, named Shams, throws up a kite on the Nader Khan hilltop in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday 30 September 2011

A little under 10 years ago, as the fighting ended and the people of Kabul emerged from their houses to realise that the nightmare of Taliban rule was over, I watched some children make a kite and start to fly it.

It was a celebration of their new independence - kite-flying, like singing, whistling, showing any skin above the ankle or possessing photos or drawings of human beings, was a crime punishable by savage beating.

The Taliban government of 1996-2001 was the most extreme form of government I have ever seen. And the most absurd - the man who often cut the hands and feet off convicted thieves was the minister of health.

When the Taliban were chased out of the towns and cities of Afghanistan with Western help, I assumed that they would never be back.

It never occurred to me that the United States and Britain would, only a year later, be planning an all-out invasion of a different country, Iraq; or that the money that might have lifted Afghanistan out of its wretched poverty might be spent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

'More sophisticated'

In the years between 2001 and 2005, with scarcely anyone in the West noticing, the Taliban started to come back. British and American diplomats based here often used to tear their hair out in private when they realised what was happening.

Image caption John Simpson, dressed in a burka, became the only foreign TV journalist in Afghanistan in September 2001

And it got worse. In April 2006 the then Defence Secretary, John Reid, now Lord Reid, was quoted by Reuters as saying that British troops were in Afghanistan to help the people reconstruct their country, and would be perfectly happy to leave in three years' time without firing a single shot.

It was used against him later, but that is indeed how things seemed in 2006.

Then the situation started turning nasty - and once again because of events in Iraq. The Americans were heavily critical of the relatively relaxed way British troops were controlling the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

They wanted tougher tactics, more aggression, and eventually the British left Iraq to the Americans altogether, and concentrated on Afghanistan instead.

But the British approach changed. Instead of concentrating on reconstruction, the British forces found themselves increasingly fighting a shooting war.

It's hard to avoid the feeling that, having been criticised by the Americans for being too soft in Iraq, Britain wanted to show that it could indeed fight and win wars still.

At first, it did not seem such a bad idea - up to that point the Taliban had mostly been pretty ineffectual fighters.

But they slowly got better - much better. Volunteers from other countries started to come in, just as they once had into Iraq. The bomb-makers became extraordinarily sophisticated.

And now the Americans and British have set the end of 2014 as the time for pulling out. The Taliban, naturally encouraged, have changed their tactics. Their plan is to show they can strike in the heart of Kabul itself.

They have recently attacked Nato headquarters and the US embassy, and probably murdered the former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was acting as chief peace negotiator. The general unpopularity of the killing may be the reason the Taliban have not publicly admitted responsibility.

Outside Kabul itself, the Taliban are in control of big areas close by. A couple of years ago I filmed at a girls' school in Logar province which had just been blown up by the Taliban. Then it caused a shock that they had come so close to the capital.

Nowadays that area is too dangerous for Westerners to visit. So, 10 years later, are the Taliban on their way back? Will they once again take over Kabul and start whipping children for whistling or flying kites?

'Diverted efforts'

Image caption The Taliban, encouraged by the planned withdrawal, have changed their tactics

I find it really hard to believe - as long as the Western countries don't forget about Afghanistan yet again, as they did when the Russians left in 1989, and once more when the Taliban were chased out in 2001.

The pull-out of British and American troops may actually help, since the Taliban will not be able to say they are fighting foreign invaders any more.

But I admit I thought they would never be back 10 years ago, and I was very wrong then.

Like the British and American governments, I forgot the old adage - you can invade Afghanistan, but you must never occupy it.

One thought still haunts me, though. Supposing that, instead of switching their attention to Iraq after 2001, the British and the Americans had devoted all their efforts to making this, one of the world's poorest countries, a thriving, prosperous, educated society?

The war is said to have cost the Americans $120bn, and the British £18bn.

Just think how, if that money had been judiciously and wisely invested here, it might have transformed everything.