As the flags of the United States and Britain are lowered in the war ravaged province of Helmand at the end of a 13-year long campaign; the scenes, which were supposed to be the signalling of victorious closure, resemble a bloodied retreat instead. The troops left under the cover of darkness, in secrecy. As the promised withdrawal begins in earnest, Afghanistan is more unstable than ever, and its ability to function as a sovereign state is seriously questioned.

The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) on Thursday submitted a report to the US Congress which paints a bleak picture. The number of attacks by insurgents is the highest since 2011; the Afghan army has sustained heavy causalities and is suffering from high rates of attrition. Poppy cultivation, the underbelly of the Afghan economy, which is a major source of funding for the insurgents, has doubled from the pre-1999 levels, when the Taliban ruled the country. Furthermore, a budget deficit is rapidly opening up in the government’s exchequer. It seems in terms of mission objectives, the US has failed on nearly every count; militancy is rampant, the drug trade is booming, and the Afghan government is still a shaky edifice, with little authority outside major urban centres.  Meanwhile, Iraq, the other US experiment in imported democracy, is staring into the abyss. These two regions seem to be conclusive proof that ‘liberation’ operations end up doing more harm than good. But, all is not lost. Afghanistan still hasn’t imploded like the Middle East – yet.

The Afghan government can still steer this vessel away from the precipice. It has been given a rare opportunity; the unity coalition government represents a cross section of the country. If it decides to put aside its petty power plays and present a united front to the Taliban, it can do much. With the US out of the way, the government can put in place effective mechanisms to curb poppy cultivation and insurgency by cooperating with Iran, Pakistan and China; something the US presence complicated. One of the first initiatives of Ashraf Ghani has been to visit China to negotiate the opening of the Wakkan trade route and secure investment in the mining sector; a potential cash cow. Afghanistan is on the knife’s edge; a few false steps and it can descend into the same nightmare Iraq is having. A great deal of determined steps in the right direction, with genuine political will, might keep the terror at bay.