Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.

A landlocked mountainous country with a terrible record on women’s rights, history of religious fanaticism, and proud military tradition where every man has a gun, recently held a rare national election producing an extremely close result. The country’s power brokers and neighbouring states worried for the nation’s stability and the future of its economy. Afghanistan? No, Switzerland, where a referendum narrowly enjoined the weak central government to restrict immigration. The two countries are cousins.

  • Hostility to central authority: As in Afghanistan, the capital’s authority in Switzerland is extremely weak. Most decisions are made at a local level.
  • Mountainous landscape: A dense network of glacial valleys made travel hazardous until relatively recently. Winter snows could cut villages off for months leading to strong feelings of local independence.
  • “Terrible record on women’s rights” : Women were only given the right to vote in Swiss national elections in 1972. While the canton of Appenzell Innerhoden denied it to them into the 1990s.
  • Experience of religious fanaticism: Geneva and Zurich were hotbeds of presbyterian extremism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Calvin and Zwingli promoted their violent ideology demanding the overthrow of insufficiently godly governments across Europe.
  • Military Tradition: Switzerland’s neutrality was armed and hard fought. It had a long tradition of supplying mercenaries for wars in Italy and Germany (some still guard the pope) while invaders would be foolish to risk fighting them on home territory. Fearing a Nazi invasion, Swiss general Henri Guisard developed a guerrilla strategy of “La Réduit Suisse” (Swiss Redoubt) that the Swiss credit with deterring a German attack.
  • Every man has a gun: Switzerland mandates universal male military service and while in the army, every swiss man has to keep his gun with him, and have one available to him as long as he is liable to be called up to the reserves.

Defeatists and pessimists on the subject of Afghanistan had a seductive line in the years they felt under pressure: we can’t expect to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland, so we should cut our losses and end our involvement. As the first round of the presidential elections approached, and it looked as though the Taliban would manage to disrupt the elections and scare voters away from the polls, they had reason to feel confident in.

Yet they were wrong: millions voted, most polling stations stayed open, and two candidates seem to have emerged in contention to succeed Hamid Karzai: Ashraf Ghani, in a new, pragmatic, perhaps too pragmatic, alliance with veteran warlord Rashid Dostum, versus Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister. Both candidates, who boast doctorates in economics and medicine, will likely face each other in a run off later this year.

If the second round goes well, look to the experience of the Swiss: they built an extraordinarily well functioning state in extremely difficult conditions. Far from always being rich, Switzerland was until recently rather poor. So poor, in fact, that it exported its young men for domestic service as well as military adventure: so numerous were Swiss grooms and footmen that the Polish word for manservant translates as “Swiss man.” Not was their neighborhood secure. Central Europe was laid waste by rampaging empires every few decades until 1945. During the Cold War, the Swiss took care to protect themselves: until very recently all apartments had to be built with bomb shelters below.

Like Switzerland, Afghanistan’s rugged terrain means central government is more expensive, less beneficial, and less feared than in is in flatter, more easily passable lands. This has major effects on state building. More than anything else, centralised states build up their subjects’ loyalty by manipulating their greed and fear. Greed because they promise to redistribute resources, literally by disbursing funds, through access to political power or even by providing infrastructure all paid by resources obtained elsewhere.

The deal is normally the same: support us and we’ll use our power to divert resources from “them” to you. Modern democracies are not so different, just more predictable, thanks to the rule of law, and more subtle in how they alleviate people’s pangs of greed. Meanwhile, fear is double edged. The risk that you or your valley or tribe will be on the wrong end of the redistribution is balanced by the need to stick together against the enemies outside.

Rough territory makes greed and fear harder to transmit: it costs more to build roads and power plants or systems of impartial justice to overawe local warlords; collecting taxes is expensive when you need to threaten battle first; central authority is less threatening when you can attack their columns from your mountain passes and less useful when your land is impassable to invaders.

Times are, however, changing. Thanks to international aid, there’s more money to build roads and fund security forces, education and basic health. Air power leaves mountain passes vulnerable. As the successful election day showed, the Taliban, though capable of terrorist attacks, can’t interrupt this exercise in measuring the distribution of loyalty and power across the country.

Ashraf Ghani stands for an almost mystical belief in impartial Afghan state institutions. Playing a straight bat in 2009 he polled in the single digits. This time he has joined with one of the country’s most experienced and feudalist warlords who between them apear to carry about as much support as their main opponent. Afghanistan’s future will depend on the kind of deal the three can make, to share the resources of the centre around enough to keep both Western donors and local power brokers on board. Ghani’s credibility in particular depends on being able to supply enough security, uncorrupt local justice, and education for the next generation.

If done right it will shift the balance of power toward Kabul and away from the Taliban. Soviet or Bourbonesque centralism won’t work here and trust in central authority too weak for the losing side to tolerate Westminster style alternation of power. The key, as in Switzerland, is to build the state little by little, and to share its benefits liberally. It might just work.