Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan has ended with the decisive lowering of its flag in Kabul, but our long-term legacy in the country remains uncertain.

The original mission – rooting out al-Qaeda and toppling the Taliban – was accomplished relatively quickly. It’s too soon to tell what Canada’s 12-year-long military involvement accomplished beyond that.

The latest United Nations report on the situation in Afghanistan, delivered to the Security Council this week, captures a prevailing sense of chaos and uncertainty on the ground.

In 2013, violence in the country soared to levels last seen in 2011, which posted the highest number of “security incidents” since the fall of the Taliban. Last year saw more armed conflict, more suicide bombs and more civilian casualties than the year before. By anyone’s measure – certainly the UN’s – security in Afghanistan is deteriorating, particularly in Kandahar province, where Canadian soldiers battled insurgents for five bloody years.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai isn’t helping matters. He will leave the presidential palace later this year without signing a bilateral agreement with the United States that would keep an international military contingent in the country beyond 2014. That essentially leaves security arrangements in Afghanistan up in the air, creating a vacuum that analysts predict the Taliban will use to its advantage, the UN notes.

Of course, the establishment of security wasn’t the only goal of Canada and its allies. As the mission wore on, its mandate broadened to include the building of infrastructure and institutions; the eradication of polio and poverty; the emancipation of Afghan women; and the development of democracy.

These were noble pursuits, but never a matter of pure altruism. Improving the lives of ordinary Afghans was a key tenet of counterinsurgency, the prevailing strategy that military commanders believed would ultimately win the war. And in many cases, it worked: Nurturing allegiance of ordinary Afghans reduced the risk of them joining the Taliban.

This is why it’s so discouraging to read in the UN’s assessment that some of those fragile gains have been lost. Afghanistan’s economy is a disaster, with the country extraordinarily dependent on aid. Most of the country’s spending is swallowed up by security and “operating costs,” with just 35 per cent going toward development. Per-capita GDP remains the lowest in Asia. Drought and conflict have forced 630,000 Afghans to leave their homes and set up camp elsewhere. Squalid camps of internally displaced refugees have sprung up around Kabul.

And despite years of Western involvement and billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, children’s health is worsening. In some of the country’s more remote regions, starvation has emerged as a bigger threat than the insurgents. The UN forecasts humanitarian needs will soar as aid agencies withdraw and Western troops leave.

The UN’s assessment of Afghanistan isn’t all bleak. Next month, for instance, Afghans will go to the polls to elect their next president in a ballot that so far appears to be relatively free from the prospect of violence and corruption that marred previous votes.

All of the candidates have vowed to sign the security agreement that Mr. Karzai has put off. The Afghan National Army may be suffering from attrition, but the ranks of local police are swelling. In January, Colonel Jamila Baez was appointed police chief in a district of Kabul, the first woman to hold such a role. (Progress on women’s rights has been mixed, at best. More Afghan women are stepping forward to report violence against them, but conviction rates remain comparatively low.)

The larger context of insecurity, uncertainty and decline is impossible to ignore. Afghanistan may still have the hope of a better future within its grasp, but the most credible assessments show that whatever progress has been made over the last dozen years could just as easily slip away.

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 12 2014, 10:19 PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 12 2014, 10:20 PM EDT