In its second year of power, and its first real year of outright control, the government of Afghanistan has entered a crucial year that decides whether everything comes together - or falls apart.
If Kabul and other major cities are stable, donor money will flow, refugees will return, and roads will be rebuilt. If the nation remains unstable, aid resources will dry up, and Afghanistan could return to the 12th century conditions prevalent under the Taliban.
"The coming year will be the big challenge," says Maki Shinohara, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kabul. "The government will be under pressure to show the people that their lives have improved, and for that we need the continued attention of the international community (of donors)."
Aid workers and the new government of President Hamid Karzai are shifting their attention from short-term emergency aid to the longer-term work of rebuilding all those roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals destroyed by war.
But as with last year, the response from donor nations has been tentative this year, Ms. Shinohara says. "If the international community pulls out, it could quickly go back to the war years."
This mixture of optimism and dread is common around Kabul these days. The sheer physical improvements to this country are dramatic, as Afghans rebuild their homes and shops, clear their fields of land mines, send their children to school, and put 23 years of war behind them. But just as striking are the ways in which Afghanistan hasn't changed. Most women still wear burqas; most buildings and roads remain destroyed; many families have no access to schools, health services, safe drinking water, or electricity; most young men don't have jobs; and most of the military leaders who turned the country into a shambles remain on the loose - or in the interim government - reportedly waiting for their moment to strike.
Afghan and international officials here agree that the first building block of any "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan is security. Currently the greatest threat to security, Afghan and US military sources say, is a new alliance of Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Afghan religious extremists, whom Afghan intelligence sources say are regrouping along the long and rugged Afghan-Pakistani border.
"The financial transaction system of Al Qaeda - such as money laundering, charities, and sympathizers - has not been seriously disrupted," says an Afghan official in the intelligence agency, Amniat. As for America's number one enemy, he says, "Osama bin Laden is moving back and forth across the border - our surveillance of him is constant."
But perhaps a more immediate threat than Mr. bin Laden himself is a homegrown terrorist named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The chief of Hizb-I Islami, a religious party that fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Mr. Hekmatyar recently called for a jihad against US forces. Unlike his allies - the Taliban and Al Qaeda - Hekmatyar can offer a motivated and trained network of supporters within Afghanistan. A bombing last September in a crowded Kabul market was a signature Hekmatyar event, Afghan police officials say: First, a small car bomb drew a crowd of shoppers; then a second, larger blast killed more than 30 civilians.
The international force that currently patrols Kabul with Afghan police says that such attacks skew public perceptions, when in fact the violent crime rate has fallen dramatically in the past year.
"It's like any major capital city, such as Washington, D.C.; anything can happen, accidents, bombings," says Capt. Mufit Yilmaz, spokesman for the International Security and Assistance Force in Kabul. "But don't forget, a year before, there was no water for people and now there are wells. Women couldn't walk on the street alone, and now they do. People are voting with their feet, they are coming to the city, and the government is establishing a better life for them."
Supporting this reconstruction effort are a shifting cast of international donors, led by the US. Bush administration officials say US nonmilitary spending in Afghanistan will be in the order of $300 to $400 million this year, up from $271 million last year.
The money will be distributed to a number of highly visible projects such as 1,200 primary schools, 600 health clinics, hundreds of wells, three major irrigation systems, projects in democracy and governance, and road and infrastructure reconstruction.
"We need $200 million to just get things started, but we would love to get it closer to $320 million," says Elizabeth Kvitashvili, development officer for USAID in Kabul. "We're not just building a project and walking away. The communities will have to contribute something - teachers, laborers, food, fuel - to ensure that a facility is sustainable."
Both Russia and Iran are tackling major road projects from Kandahar to Herat, and Japan is handling a portion of the effort to rebuild parts of the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway. But others - notably Saudi Arabia, home of bin Laden - are coming up empty. Saudi Arabia originally offered $40 million in grants to rebuild roads. Then they turned the grant into a $30 million loan. The Afghan government refused the terms; insiders suggest the Saudi government may not give any money at all.
Public patience with the Afghan government seems to be wearing thin at times. At a recent protest in Kabul, around 200 amputees and disabled war veterans complained that they'd been paid less than one-fifth of the monthly stipend they'd been promised by the Karzai government.
"We have lost our limbs because of this war, and now these people come to power and they enjoy all the money, and we are just begging on the street to survive," says Mohammad Hussein, a former tank driver for the Northern Alliance, who lost his right leg.
"Karzai promised to help us, but he did nothing," says Mohammad Tahir, a Northern Alliance veteran who lost his left leg. "We want to get rid of him."