President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India comes at a time when his nation’s future, more than at any point since 9/11, is shrouded in a fog of fear. This weekend, shells fired by his troops were reported to have killed five civilians in Pakistan’s South Waziristan agency, the latest in a series of cross-border skirmishes. Pakistan’s intelligence services allege, with some justification, that their Afghan counterparts are backing the militia of Islamist warlord Maulana Fazlullah — in tit-for-tat retaliation against the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’s backing for the jihadist networks led by Sirajuddin Haqqani. Levels of violence in the country remain higher than prior to 2010, when United States-led international forces began a surge it was hoped would break the back of the Taliban insurgency. Even though civilian casualties in the southern insurgent strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand have fallen, they have spiked in the eastern provinces. Efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban have been all but extinguished. For all the talk of ambitious economic development projects involving China, India and the Central Asian Republics, precious little has actually got off the ground. High-end property prices in Kabul are in free fall — perhaps illustrating a growing crisis of faith among the elite who have been the bedrock of Mr. Karzai’s regime.
Is Afghanistan’s lurch into the abyss, then, inevitable? The news isn’t, in fact, all bad. In April 2014, if elections are held as scheduled, Mr. Karzai will become the first elected Afghan head of state to complete his terms in office — and, perhaps more important, leave office in an orderly way. Mr. Karzai’s government has justly been criticised for incredible levels of corruption. Yet, that very corruption has given competing warlords equities in the survival of a stable — if not always functional — state structure. Even though the Afghan National Army remains undertrained and under-resourced, it has demonstrated an improved capacity to stage operations needed to keep key cities and transport arteries secure after United States combat troops withdraw in 2014. Perhaps most important, there is a generation of young Afghans who are committed to rebuilding their nation. These gains can be built on — but post-2014, pious promises notwithstanding, western support for Afghanistan will diminish. There is no doubt that an Afghanistan in meltdown will hurt the entire region, providing jihadist movements that threaten Central Asia, China and Pakistan a fresh lease of life. Indian diplomacy will be critical to corralling Afghanistan’s neighbours to put their money and resources into the long, hard job of rebuilding a state and a polity torn apart by decades of war.