In 2006 Afghanistan will be trying to move from an emergency situation towards longer-term state-building and development goals, with more Afghan ownership. However, significant obstacles to this developmental “normalisation” will remain. Important developments will be the fulfilment of the main provisions of the 2001 Bonn agreement through the election of a parliament, and the underpinning of future efforts through a National Development Strategy and a renewed compact with the international community to be signed in London in late January.
The role of international military forces will also change as Nato expands the peacekeeping International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) by sending more soldiers to the troubled south of the country. US forces, while reducing their numbers by 4,000 to 16,000, will continue to lead counter-insurgency operations there, and will retain military responsibility for restive eastern borderlands. Improvements in Afghan army and police capacity to support, and eventually manage, security in the south and east will be crucial.
While progressive expansion of state authority in the centre, north and west has allowed improvements to infrastructure and administration, there is danger of a widening division between those parts of the country that are able to move forward into some development and those too insecure to do so. A potential fusion in some places of insurgency with narcotics trafficking, along with infrequent but increasing attacks by suicide-bombers, highlight the continuing security challenges.
The inauguration of the national assembly brings important changes in politics. The lower house, a grab bag of jihadis and warlords, religious conservatives, surprisingly many women, and a few liberals, will present a chaotic picture in its first year. For the first time there will be a domestic check on the presidency, and the task of ratifying the decrees of recent years will begin to expose the assembly’s complex range of positions and shifting alliances. Yet, no group or shade of opinion holds decisive sway, and with support, some good faith from its members, and luck, the parliament may signal the start of a political system that will foster debate rather than force. Equally, if the house descends into naked patronage it will quickly lose the fragile trust of ordinary Afghans.
The overall challenge in 2006 will be to reach further towards a common vision for Afghanistan’s political and administrative structures, and the place of religion and tradition in its future, and then to take sustainable steps towards that vision. Any such vision is still far in the future, and Afghanistan will need continued support, as well as more independence, to reach it.