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With his fancy hats and fluent English, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan cuts a dashing figure on the international stage. But, while Mr Karzai is a regular at Davos, he keeps a low profile in Afghanistan itself. Holed up in his presidential palace in Kabul, he seemed tired and evasive at a press conference there last week.

Mr Karzai’s erratic behaviour is just one reason for fearing for the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban insurgency is still raging across the country. Suicide attacks are occurring at eight times the rate they were in 2006. Diplomats in Kabul are told not to visit restaurants or markets. Last week an International Monetary Fund report portrayed the Afghan economy as based on opium and aid.

Open bickering has broken out within the international coalition that is trying to shore up Afghanistan. The Canadians, who hold the vital region around Kandahar, are threatening to withdraw their 2,500 troops unless allies send reinforcements. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, has criticised the counterinsurgency efforts of Nato allies.

All this is having an effect on public opinion. A recent poll in Britain showed that 62 per cent of the public want British troops out of Afghanistan within the year. Commentators in right and leftwing newspapers are arguing that the fight is hopeless and that withdrawal is the best option.

There are two variants of the pessimistic case – and neither is easily dismissed. The first is that the job in Afghanistan was doable but the west messed it up. The second is that the whole idea of setting up a modern, democratic state in Afghanistan was a fantasy.

The west clearly was far too complacent about Afghanistan. In 2003 Donald Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, proclaimed that the war was over. But by then an anti-Nato insurgency was beginning in the Afghan countryside.

General Dan McNeill, head of Nato forces in Afghanistan, pointed out recently that US counterinsurgency doctrine would point to the need for 400,000 troops in Afghanistan, rather than the 50,000 or so soldiers currently deployed. Given this disparity, the bitter arguments within Nato provoked by the search for an extra 7,000 troops seem almost beside the point. President George W. Bush has repeatedly said that “failure is not an option” in Afghanistan. But the west has arguably never been willing to commit the resources to succeed.

An even bleaker argument is that success was never an option. Speaking in Afghanistan last week Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, spoke of turning the country into a “functioning modern state”. But the new Afghan institutions supported by the west are not taking root. One international official in Kabul told me that villagers in rural Afghanistan have generally never heard of their representatives in the Afghan parliament and have little understanding of the new Afghan courts or provincial councils. They still look naturally to the tribal “shuras” for security and justice.

The pessimists say that naive western plans are falling apart when faced with the reality of Afghanistan. But the people calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan are guilty of their own form of naivety. The west tried leaving Afghanistan to its own devices after the Russians pulled out and the results were disastrous – civil war, followed by the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Vague talk about pulling back and monitoring terrorist training camps from a safe distance is unrealistic. Even in neighbouring Pakistan, which has a functioning central government and a large army, it has proved impossible to eradicate al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the lawless tribal areas. Why should it be any easier, after a Nato withdrawal from the even wilder environment of Afghanistan?

The call for fresh troops is prompting inevitable talk of a “new Vietnam”. That is over the top. There have been 764 coalition deaths in Afghanistan, compared to about 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam.

And although Nato and the US have made mistakes in Afghanistan, they are also capable of learning from their errors. American counterinsurgency operations in the east of the country – which have recently focused much more on development aid – seem to be working well. This suggests that the alliance’s long-term goal of pacifying areas and then handing security over to a retrained and well financed Afghan army is far from hopeless.

The south, where the British and the Canadians are leading the fight, is much tougher going. But the British only moved into Helmand province in 2006, so it is not surprising that fighting is still continuing.

The rise of terrorism in urban areas is demoralising for the westerners in Kabul and insecurity there sends a powerful symbolic message. But the Taliban is not capable of taking and controlling a major settlement anywhere in the country.

A recognition that Afghanistan is likely to be a wild, poor and tribalised country for many years to come should not obscure the fact that life has improved for ordinary Afghans since the fall of the Taliban. Millions of refugees have returned to the country. Schools and roads have been built. Kabul, which was a shell-scarred wreck and home to just 300,000 people in 2001, now has a population of close to 3m. Opinion polls in Afghanistan, for what they are worth, suggest that a large majority of Afghans wants a continued western presence.

It was a mistake for the west to declare victory in Afghanistan prematurely five years ago. But it would be an even bigger error to declare defeat prematurely now.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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