The first Afghan war of the twenty-first century is coming to an end as the first Afghan civil war begins. Ten years ago today the first Western soldiers were about to set foot on Afghan soil. The Taliban were then routed and it seemed likely that Al Qaeda would soon be denied the space that is Afghanistan from which to launch lethal attacks on Western civilians. Ten years on tens of thousands of Afghan lives have been lost; some 1700 American soldiers are dead alongside 400 of their British comrades, with many more dead from coalition nations. $21 billion of aid has been spent – much of it wasted or spirited away. And still the ‘strategic’ goal of a stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and the world seems an elusive dream. Yesterday’s War?

To talk privately to officials in European capitals Afghanistan has become the non-war. After all, they say, Bin Laden is dead, the Americans want out and Europeans in any case have more pressing matters, such as saving European society from financial ruin. They tell themselves that ‘they’ have done their best for what was after all another failed American war. Of course, in spite of all this no damage has been done to NATO which must now consider other futures.

There is much talk of transition – transition in to Afghan rule; transition out for the West. End 2014 is now the magic date when all major combat operations will end and by which time some grand political bargain will (of course) have been fashioned for Afghanistan. The West will (or course) stay in Afghanistan for years to come offering its aid and advice – members of a well-meaning international community. In reality only the Americans will be formally present on the ground and few at that.

The Afghans, ever-savvy fence-sitters, have not missed the meaning of the moment. The attacks by the Haqqani Network on Kabul are merely the first salvoes of a new power struggle between and within the Pashtun-led Taliban and Afghanistan’s ‘others’ over who will control what bit of the Afghan space, how and at what drug price – fuelled of course by generous doses of mischief from Afghanistan’s ever-interfering neighbours.

The race to fill the Afghan space with something that looks ever so slightly like a functioning Afghan state now enters its final, dangerous stage. What will the end look like? Will it be a formal handover of power with a nice flag-swapping military ceremony, or will it look more like the chaos of 1973 Saigon? Who knows? Whoever does know in Afghanistan?

2012 will be the pivotal year. The trick for the Americans will be to intensify peace-talks whilst fighting. Campaign momentum is everything, Sadly, it is unlikely the Karzai Government will shift off its own fence. History suggests it will continue with some efforts to establish basic but acceptable levels of governance, whilst cutting informal deals with the members of the not-so-loyal opposition, and prepare to get out.

As ever, the situation in the south will be critical but not exclusively so. It is too early to tell if the Kandahar murder of Ahmed Wali Karzai in July 2011 has eased or complicated what passes for a political process in Afghanistan. The Pashtun represent 42% of the population but are by no means a unified body and whilst they are the political centre of gravity in Afghanistan their appeasement will only lead to conflict with the Tajiks (27%) Hazara (9%) and Uzbeks (9%).

The 2014 state of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police will thus be the true test of the West’s legacy. It is in them the West must now focus its main, last effort. Will they be able to act as a unifying national force? Will they be strong enough for Kabul to exert real control over Afghanistan? Or will they be just strong enough to spare the West’s blushes on departure? The nature of the West’s departure depends on the answers to these questions.

It is not Switzerland that is being so painfully constructed in the Hindu Kush but chaos still beckons if we simply walk away. Ten years on all of us in some way engaged in the campaign – from the loftiest politician to the humblest squaddie or grunt – need to grip the importance of this moment. If not, the sacrifice will have been in vain and history will condemn those on whose inattentive watch they perished.

Yesterday’s War?

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.