The year 2002 was a remarkable year for the people of Afghanistan. Freed from the grip of the Taleban and al-Qaida, Afghans saw a transitional government take shape and a new national army and police force established. Still, factional fighting and terrorism persisted in Afghanistan in 2002, raising long term concerns about security in the country, and prompting a major shift in coalition military activities.
German troops belonging to the International Security Assistance Force were taking no chances one night last September, stopping cars to conduct spot identity checks and search for weapons.
The ISAF troops are responsible for security in Kabul. The troops, like the residents of the city they were patrolling, were on edge. A day before, a car bomb had killed more than two dozen Afghans. Hours after the bomb blast, President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the southern city, Kandahar.
Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah warned darkly of terrorism resurfacing in Afghanistan.
"The terrorist groups will try and make a few attempts in order to show they are not gone, that they are still there," he said. "They do this to attract attention. I think their aim is from one side to attract attention and destabilize the situation inside Afghanistan. Their other aim is to show the campaign against terrorism has been unsuccessful. This is their strategy. While the leaders of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and the Taleban are in hiding and on the run and struggling for survival, they are also trying to show their organizations are not totally destroyed. We also believe this. We believe terrorists and terrorism is not eradicated from Afghanistan, or from the region."
Foreign Minister Abdullah's comments came just weeks after President Hamid Karzai had been sworn in as transitional president, following the conclusion of a historic Loya Jirga or grand council meeting of many of Afghanistan's traditional leaders. Afghanistan, it seemed, was about to enter a new era of political stability and reconstruction.
Alex Thier, a former U.N. official in Afghanistan, who now works as a consultant to organizations involved in conflict resolution efforts, says extremist groups with ties to the Taleban and al-Qaida were bound to re-group in Afghanistan.
Mr. Thier says although terrorist attacks, like the car bombing in Kabul and the attempt on Mr. Karzai's life, are dangerous to Afghanistan's stability, factional fighting is a far greater threat.
"The greater threat to Afghanistan's future is factional fighting at the moment," he said. "It is not only from the forces that were controlling the country before, like the Taleban or al-Qaida. The danger now is that you have fault lines in the north, you have problems in the south. There was shooting recently south of Herat. There are obvious significant problems to the south of here, in Gardez and Khost areas. If any of those conflicts break out in a large scale way, it is going to force the international community reckon with the seething conflicts that exist in Afghan society, right now."
Alex Their says the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida know they will not be able to retake control of Afghanistan. He says the best they can hope for is to destabilize the country. He says the challenge for the 8,000 strong U.S.-led coalition force in Afghanistan is to deploy enough force to prevent that from happening without alienating the local population.
U.S. military authorities say they are attempting a delicate balancing act in Afghanistan: hunting the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida, and trying to establish security, while at the same time avoiding entanglements with Afghan factions, that could draw U.S. and coalition forces deeper into the nation's factional fights.
Late in the year, there was a major restructuring of coalition military activities in the country, shifting emphasis away from combat operations towards reconstruction efforts. On a visit to Afghanistan in November, General Tommy Franks, the commander-in chief of the U.S. Central Command, said the shift will mean modifying combat operations, so that more security can be provided for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
"What we know we need to do is that, we need to continue to set security conditions inside Afghanistan, so that the Afghans themselves can get this country under control," he said. "That is not new news to us. It is a matter of focus for us. I stay away from terms like nation-building, or peacekeeping or peacemaking. We are talking about simply changing, or modifying, the focus, that we put into kinetics [combat operations], which we are going to continue to do in this country, as long as we need to, and how much we are going to put into reconstruction."
The policy change is controversial, with some development organizations saying they do not want to see a blurring of lines between humanitarian workers and soldiers, and others saying the military should stick to what it does best, fighting the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida. But U.S. military authorities defend the shift, saying military-backed reconstruction projects can have an immediate effect on an area, and also help to create the stability that Afghanistan so desperately needs.
Part of VOA's yearend series.