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.