KABUL— After more than a decade of war, Afghans have another tough year ahead. In 2014, they face the complete withdrawal of international combat forces, a tapering off of aid money, a weak economy, a continuing insurgency, and elections for a new president.
The April 2014 presidential elections will usher in the first government since the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban that does not have Afghan leader Hamid Karzai at the top.
Over the years, critics say Karzai has transformed from a reliable U.S. ally into an unpredictable leader, to the frustration of both his foreign partners and domestic allies. Nonetheless, despite his political maneuvering, Karzai has become a symbol for continuity in Afghanistan.
Young people growing up in busy cities like Kabul have expectations of a better future, but fierce power rivalries and lawlessness in the country mean it is unlikely next year's election will be free and fair, according to analyst Kate Clark.
“The ideal is that you have someone that has a popular consensus. And I think that’s difficult,” she said. “The fraud is so much that you are not going to get anyone happy, and it’s a question of how messy it’s going to be.”
Also in question is what is going to happen to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. By early December, Karzai had refused to sign a bilateral security pact that would keep a contingent behind to train, assist and equip Afghan forces.
Karzai snubbed the nation’s tribal elders, who approved the security deal and called for it to be signed immediately,JirgaJ and instead declared that the agreement should be signed after the elections and peace and stability are established in the country.
U.S. officials are working hard to convince Karzai to finalize the security agreement before the end of the year, and say delaying the signing will make it harder to keep the estimated 12,000 U.S. troops in country.
Another thorny issue is neighboring Pakistan. The U.S. is concerned about Pakistan's harboring of militants and the security of U.S. transit routes out of Afghanistan.
An Afghan peace deal with Taliban militants - who also rejected the security pact - does not seem any closer.
Former Taliban and now Afghan High Peace Council member Abdul Hakim Mujahid says that without a deal with the militants, the country risks sliding backwards.
“If we couldn’t reach a political settlement and we went to the general election, and a president came in power who is not assured of a political settlement, we will [have] lost at least five years, unfortunately for peace, and we will for more five years, and the fighting and the crisis will be continued for more than five years in this country,” predicted Mujahid.
Afghan security forces are increasingly taking the lead across the country, but attrition and casualty rates have been high. A July 2013 Pentagon report noted that in March, Afghan force casualties spiked to more than 300 a month. March is the start of the traditional Taliban fighting season.
Clark said that as of September, Afghan security forces were dying at the rate of 100 per week.
Former minister Hamidullah Farooqi, who is also a member of the Truth and Justice party, says the national forces will need substantial help beyond 2014.
“We are a little behind in that case, that is why we don’t know if Afghan security forces will be able to defend this country without support, and our economy, our national resources are not enough for our national and security needs,” said Farooqi.
International patience is wearing thin with Karzai. Analysts say much will depend on how much Washington is willing to accommodate the Afghan leader and his demands. If the United States does withdraw all forces and a related eight billion dollars in aid, analysts warn that Afghanistan is headed for some very hard times.