Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid begins a series of columns for BBC News Online by considering the problems ahead in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Afghanistan faces a fraught year.
Two problems will dominate the concerns of the government of President Hamid Karzai:
- The lack of security in the countryside
- The failure of the international community to disburse adequate funds Afghanistan's reconstruction
The coming months will see a bruising battle over the issue of early presidential elections.
President Karzai is seeking more money
The United States administration insists that presidential elections must be held by June or September at the latest to fulfil the December 2001 Bonn agreement on the country's future.
Washington has delivered an additional $1.2bn in aid to Afghanistan, bringing its total to $2bn for 2003-2004.
But early elections will be opposed by the United Nations, many European and Nato states and western and Afghan non-governmental organisations.
They are also likely to be opposed by many Afghans including at least half the cabinet that wants elections to be postponed for a minimum of one year.
But with the backing of a reluctant President Karzai, Washington's agenda - partly motivated by having a success story to show to American voters by the November 2004 presidential elections - is likely to win out.
The credibility of Afghanistan's elections will be crucial, and key to that will be the level of voter turnout in the strife-torn belt of southern Afghanistan where Pashtuns form the main ethnic group.
Some 400 people have been killed there since August 2003 due to a resurgence of the Taleban, who are largely based in Pakistan.
Reconstruction by UN and other aid agencies has come to a virtual halt in the south.
Security will remain the single biggest issue across the country in 2004.
Nato, which now controls the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Kabul, has pledged to move outside the capital with more troops.
But European members of Nato have largely refused to provide those troops.
Caring for a bomb victim in the city of Kandahar
The US will be urging Nato to fulfil its pledges so that security is enhanced for the elections.
Although the US has said it will establish a total of 12 Provincial Reconstruction Teams across the country by March 2004, these small military-civilian units will not have much capacity.
That in turn could jeopardise the work of UN voter registration teams, and impede efforts to disarm warlord militias.
It will also make it harder for more aid assistance to reach every one of the country's 32 provinces, a key UN goal.
Furthermore, several other key UN-backed projects are hampered by the lack of security.
These include speeding up the disarming and demobilisation of 100,000 militiamen, which began in October and will last three years.
Also affected will be census taking, the project involving the registering 10.5 million voters for both the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Strong central government
The Loya Jirga (Grand Council) which ended on 4 January and ratified a new constitution with a presidential system of government has caused ethnic tensions to resurface.
The majority Pashtun back a strong central government led by President Karzai, while a large block of minority ethnic groups in the north want greater autonomy and a weaker president.
If elections are held early, these ethnic tensions may become more serious.
400 people have been killed since August 2003
The Loya Jirga showed that non-Taleban Islamic hardliners led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf are still powerful in many areas of the country.
They will continue to push for greater Islamicisation by using the highly conservative Afghan judiciary to support their demands.
President Karzai will have to deal with these new ethnic shifts in a more democratic and concessionary way than other Afghan regimes.
At the same time he will need to ensure that Pashtuns do not lord it over other ethnic groups.
If the government deals with these issues in a mature fashion, it could herald the start of real and genuine democratic debate rather than issues being forced by the gun.
The government is trying to organize a Bonn 2 donors conference in the spring of 2004 to make a plea for $30bn over the next 15 years for Afghanistan's reconstruction.
But donors remain reluctant to commit to such large figures.
The lack of funding for reconstruction and the continued emphasis on Iraq by the international community will remain a major problem for the government.
But despite the cash shortages, Afghanistan is slowly on the road to stability.
The two essential processes of building a nation through political and economic reconstruction while building up the institutions of state and government are beginning to take place.
Ahmed Rashid is author of Jihad and Taliban: Islam, Oil and the new Great Game in Central Asia.
A selection of your views on Ahmed Rashid's column and the future of Afghanistan are printed below.
It's sad how President Bush seems to have so quickly forgotten about Afghanistan. After promising to bring freedom and democracy to that nation in 2002, it is rare to hear him mention anything about Afghanistan. The entire focus is now on Iraq. I wonder if in two more years, the entire focus will be on some other nation, and Iraq will be left to fall back into anarchy like Afghanistan.
Ali Chaudrey, USA
One thing that foreign experts about Afghanistan such as Mr Ahmed Rashid and others need to learn about my homeland, Afghanistan: It's a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country with no clear majority and minority groups. Every ethnic group is a minority among other minorities since no group is making up 50 plus percent of the total population. Pashtun and Tajiks are the two largest groups, Hazara and Uzbeks are the third and fourth major groups. Its true that Pashtuns were ruling the country for the past 250 years or so with the little involvement from other ethnicities, but Afghanistan has a history of 5000 plus years. And each of those groups were dominating the power at some points during that long history of the country. For any democratic and elected government to succeed in the future, it is important to have proportional representation from all ethnic groups. Social justice is what people were struggling for during the domination of power by one minority group, Pashtuns, in the past two centuries and specially during the Pashtun Taliban regime with the backing of Al Qahida and Pakistani goverment. For any goverment to have the backing of the Majority of Afghans to establish a durable and long lasting peace and move the country forward, its necassary to guarantee equality, fairness and equal opportunity for all Afghans.
Taj, New York, USA
No matter how much money is poured in rebuilding Afghan or NATO troops helping to build security all efforts will be in vain. Lets work on this scenario. More aid money into Afghan meaning not all money is spent on rebuilding meaning corrupt politicians funneling money out meaning landing with Taliban. More money with Taliban means re-emergence on this group. First find where this man Osama is and get key members. Mr.Karzai no luck for you and your people yet. I feel deeply sorry for you. Your country needs more patience
Innocent people of Afghanistan have always suffered. Unfortunately it has been a playground of international politics and power game. Lives have been taken away mercilessly over the past quarter of a century. No one apears to be sincere to the habitants of this country and those who have the resources to do something positive have only been seen doing the damage and leaving the poor nation on x-roads. I generally agree with the comments of Ahmed Rashid, though.
Riaz ur Rehman, Canada
Ahmed Rashid is the first person who has seen that Afghanistan is gradually moving towards stability despite facing hurdles in neutralizing various factions. The positive note given by Mr. Rashid should be monitored minutely in forthcoming years.
Nasir Jadran, USA
As long as areas of Pakistan are used to mount attacks into Afghan lands by groups determined to hold onto stale visions of old ethnic power...and only until the government can bring warlords to accept its total authority, will true peace begin to rule this land. I believe these good people will succeed.
Hamilton Meadows, USA
As an Afghan citizen, I find Afghanistan having a great future as long as the enemies of this nation stop interfering. The Durand line plays a big role in the conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan should know that it's role in Afghanistan, politically have failed and military (as Taliban) has failed too. Let the Afghans live in peace and have mercy for the 2 million Afghans we sacrificed for the last 25 years.
Its only a matter of time for Afghanistan to rise back to its glory as it was in 1920's.
To say Pashtuns are part of the problem is quite a mark of inferior mind. The Pashtuns whenever in power have not caused the wreck and havoc that have been caused by the so-called other ethnic groups. Pashtuns have not been angels, yes, because every bad nation has good and bad. Let's assume that the other ethnic groups took power - would there be any difference in them and General Dostum or the likes of him. They will only be caring for which city to loot, which men to kill and which women to rape. This was the situation before Taleban came to power (supported by the CIA & ISI). So one should not be to blind and give Pashtuns all the blame. Now if you examine the feelings I have expressed then this is what the Western powers would like. Divide and rule. Think about and do not let the colorfull newspapers shape your worldview or else you will just be a puppet like the current government in Afghanistan.
Sayed Shah, UK
It is amazing that the americans can find 150000 troops to send to iraq. A nation that has done them nothing. However Afganistan that has been the home of the most dangerous terrorist in the world they cannot find 20000 troops to make it into to a more stable country. Afganistan is only asking for 20 billion to rebuild, the american doen't have any money. However, they are spend a billion a week in Iraq. I wonder why.
The problems of Afghanistan are related to the problems in Pakistan. In both these countries, the fundamental problem is that there are simply too many ethnic divisions. If Afghanistan and Pakistan are to be peaceful, stable and prosperous, the borders of both these countries have to be redrawn. The Pushtuns of either side have never accepted the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Evidence of this is that the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a very porous border. Pushtuns in Afghanistan consider themselves superior to other ethnic backgrounds. Proof of this is that the Taliban imposed a much harsher rule in Kabul and other Tajik dominated areas as opposed to Kandahar and other Pushtuns dominated areas. The Baluch in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran want a separate independent country. The Sindhis in Pakistan want independence.
Adnan Qamar, Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan
Pashtoons are to be blamed for the mess in Afghanistan... In the article, it says, "The majority Pashtun back a strong central government led by President Karzai, while a large block of minority ethnic groups in the north want greater autonomy and a weaker president." There is a reason why the other ethnic groups want the opposite of what the Pashtoons want. The Pashtoons are not looking out for the best interest of the country, they only look out for their own interest. Being that most of the Taliban were Pashtoons, it would be unwise to let the same ethnicity gain power in the country once more.
Nothing will happen. Insecurity will rise slowly, slowly. Maybe one time someone (Karzai or some other high official) will get killed. It may change something but may not. And Osama will never be found. Russians can't find rebel leaders in Chechnya for many years, but Afghanistan is much bigger place and there is much less troops.
In my opinion, Afghanistan's problem is that the Pashtuns do not accept that other ethnic groups of Afghanistan are equal to them. The fact is, that the Herat, Mazar-e-sharif, and northeast areas of Afghanistan were always quite atonomous from the Pashtun Kings that have always ruled Afghanistan. Later on, when Pashtun Kings of Afghanistan conquered those areas and paid Pashtuns from the southeast to move there, there arose in the Afghan Pashtun mentality that all of Afghanistan was theirs, and the other ethnic groups were not equal to them.
The Hazaras of Mongol origins have always been considered as fourth-class citizens simply because they are descendents of Genghiz Khan's army. The Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Tajiks are all branded as immigrants from Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, and Turkmenistan. All people of Afghanistan, whether they are Pashtun, Turkmen, Tajik, Uzbek, or Hazara should be considered equal. The Pashtuns should not automatically assume the President of Afghanistan will be a Pashtun. Finally, I think that the United States should build a strong multi-ethnic army. I think it should be 40% Pashtun, 30% Tajik, 25% Hazara, and 10% Uzbek/Turkmen and other. This national army should maintain the ethnic balance in Afghanistan and prevent Islamic extremism from spreading. I think Afghanistan's army can do what Turkey's army does.
The last thing America wants to do is have a government that is too Pashtun. This will alienate the other ethnic groups and fuel the flames of civil war.
Mansur Sharif, Jhang, Punjab
Afghanistan is surely doomed for more of the same for the foreseable future. Karzai is the ruler of only a few road blocks in and out of Kabul, the Taliban are sweeping into many small towns and the US/coalition forces seem unable to do anything to stop them. THe US spoke of liberation, but in truth all the people of Afghanistan have is more misery, piled on top of years of past misery. The media has all but forgotten about the country and the $2bn supplied by the US in aid/reconstruction is but a drop in the ocean of its real requirements. Another great US disaster.
Andrew Hirst, UK
Afghanistan is going to face an ongoing uphill task of reigning and controlling radicals for many years perhaps generations to come. Controlling women and people is deep rooted in their culture and way of thinking. Its common sense: modernise and the people benefit, carry on living in the middle ages and peoples quality of life is impaired. Just look how well India nd Malaysia are doing economically. Its sad that narrow minded people in Afghanistan cannot see the big picture.
Simon Ward, UK
There are so many who have written about Afghanistan but Ahmad Rashid is a unique and distinguished journalist. For sure, his writings are not perfect and many of his ideas can be debated but still he is a shining jewel in the crown of Pakistani journalism. If we assume that Pakistani journalism has got a conscious, for sure, that is Ahmad Rashid. Life, fate, tragedies and events hasd made him part of the Afghan society and we consider him one of us who always been sensitive to our long tragedy. We wish him good luck.
Sayed Iqbal Shah, Canada