Afghanistan faces a testing 12 months in the countdown to next year's elections amid deteriorating security and increasing opium production, which has just earned it the unenviable distinction of being the world's top drug producer.
"Political life has resumed, the administration is in the process of cleaning things up and we are beginning to reconstruct our armed forces," President Hamid Karzai said last week at the Crans Montana forum in Switzerland in an upbeat assessment of reconstruction work.
His optimistic view, however, is at odds with those of the UN and rights groups who have warned that deteriorating security threatens reconstruction and even the presidential polls which must be held by next June.
"The security situation across Afghanistan has steadily deteriorated in 2003, leading many observers to fear for the long-term stability and reconstruction of the country," Amnesty International said.
Afghanistan is also reckoned to have reclaimed its place as the world's top drug producer, after the ousted Taliban regime succeeded in wiping out poppy crops in its final days.
According to UN estimates, the country produced 3,400 tonnes of opium last year, nearly three-quarters of the world output which mostly ends up as heroin on the streets of Europe.
"Afghanistan is at a turning point, either we go towards a virtuous circle or a vicious circle," Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani said recently.
"There are two choices: a narco-mafia state or a developmental state. We must work to make the developmental state happen because the possibility of a narco-mafia regime emerging here is still very real."
Karzai has called, so far in vain, for US$20 billion to combat the drug and terror threat, saying the US$4.5 billion offered at Tokyo last year fell far short of Afghanistan's needs.
Extending Kabul's authority to the provinces remains a problem and Taliban fighters and their al-Qaeda allies continue to attack foreign troops and Afghan pro-government forces.
Four German peacekeepers were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul earlier this month and a US soldier was killed last week in the eastern border region.
Karzai and the UN have been rebuffed in their repeated calls for the 4,600-strong peacekeeping International Security Assistance Force to be extended outside Kabul. A US-led coalition of about 11,500 troops is hunting Taliban and al-Qaeda but does not provide security.
According to a study by CARE International, Afghanistan has the lowest ratio of peacekeepers to population of any recent post-conflict nation, with just one for every 5,380 people compared with Kosovo's one to 48.
"The poor security environment now prevalent through much of Afghanistan threatens the gains made so far and the tasks that lie ahead," Jean-Marie Guehenno, deputy UN secretary general for peacekeeping operations, told the Security Council early in June.
"The process has entered into its most critical and sensitive stage -- the constitutional and electoral processes -- but prevailing insecurity poses a serious risk of derailing it."
Afghanistan is carrying out a nationwide consultation on the new draft constitution which will pave the way for presidential polls. The elections must be held by June next year under a timetable set out by the Bonn agreement after the fall of the Taliban.
While the relationship between state and provinces is still to be formalized in the yet-to-be-unveiled draft constitution, Karzai faces problems extending his authority to much of the country where warlords still hold sway.
Karzai threatened to quit in May unless provincial governors and warlords handed over all their revenue to the cash-strapped central government. Some have toed the line but others are believed to be handing over just a fraction of their real earnings from customs duties and other revenue.
With just 4,000 soldiers in the nascent Afghan National Army so far, Karzai has to rely on moral authority rather than force in dealing with the powerful governors and warlords who have much larger armies.
Karzai's government will however launch a Japanese-funded programme this month to disarm an estimated 100,000 militiamen.
And some 50 British troops are due to arrive early this month to set up another provincial reconstruction team (PRT) to help improve security in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where recent fighting between rival warlords -- one a deputy defense minister -- left more than a dozen people dead.
The US-led joint civil-military PRTs are intended to help extend Kabul's reach. Three are already operating and Germany is considering setting up another in the western city of Herat.
Analysts and aid groups say the PRTs lack the resources to counter the security threats posed by warlords and other armed groups.
But Karzai and his ministers believe that, more importantly, they have the support of Afghanistan's war-weary population.
"We have moral power and we have the backing of the people, you don't need an army," said Finance Minister Ghani.
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