The year has not begun well for Afghanistan, with suicide bombings, fears of a deteriorating security situation and reports of an increased presence by Taliban forces throughout the country - writes Chris Herlinger.
"The threats are not always related to Taliban groups; often insecurity is related to local political conflicts. It is striking the number of police that are killed in attacks by criminals and insurgency groups," Paul Hicks, Afghanistan country representative for the US-based Catholic Relief Services, told Ecumenical News International
Speaking from Herat, in western Afghanistan, Hicks said security deteriorated in many parts of Afghanistan in 2007, and reported attacks on non-governmental organizations have increased, including a few involving international humanitarian workers.
"For the most part, our security in the field depends on our relationships with local community leaders as well as the local government leaders," Hicks stated. "While they keep us safe, they are also often under increasing pressure and more and more frequently recommend that we curtail travelling for periods of time."
Even the weather is not cooperating. The most severe winter in 30 years has caused at least 300 deaths, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported recently.
However, it is Afghanistan's worsening security situation that is prompting the most attention. More than a dozen people have died as the result of suicide bombings since 1 January in the capital of Kabul and in Helmand province, south-west Afghanistan.
The bombings have occurred as recent reports have portrayed a nation that has yet to find either security or substantial humanitarian improvements, more than six years after the fall of Taliban from power.
"Afghanistan stands today at a crossroads," stated a report issued on 30 January by the Afghanistan Study Group, which includes former US ambassadors, retired military leaders and academics.
"The progress achieved after six years of international engagement is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, mounting regional challenges and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about the future direction of their country," said an introduction to the report written jointly by Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, and James Jones, a retired US Marine Corps general.
Pickering and Jones noted: "The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid."
On 3 February, a spokesperson for NATO, which leads the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, painted, however, a less pessimistic picture.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the insurgent movement is being contained," Lieutenant Colonel Claudia Foss told reporters in Kabul, The Associated Press news agency reported. She noted that violence in Afghanistan had occurred in only 10 percent of the country in 2007.
Still, the British-based relief and development organization Oxfam on 31 January urged world leaders to "support a major change of direction in order to reduce suffering and avert a humanitarian disaster" in Afghanistan. The agency noted that two years have passed since the international community pledged more than US$10 billion in assistance as part of a so-called "Afghanistan Compact".
"Many of the compact's targets are not being met, and … too many of the commitments made remain unfulfilled," Oxfam stated. "There has been undoubted social and economic progress in Afghanistan, but it has been slow and is being undermined by increasing insecurity."
Chris Herlinger, a New York-based correspondent for Ecumenical News International, was recently on assignment in Afghanistan for the US-based humanitarian agency Church World Service.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]