Of the seven years that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has been in existence, 2009 would probably qualify as the most difficult yet.
As a political mission mandated to provide political and strategic advice for the peace process, and to help the Government implement the 2006 Afghanistan Compact, UNAMA and its leadership in 2009 faced a crucible of purpose and resolve through the challenges that were to confront it in the months to come.
Undeterred by these enormous events, the Mission has continued to cleave to its principles and to serve the people of Afghanistan.
Amidst a worsening security situation in Afghanistan and the rising number of civilian casualties, which stood at 1,013 deaths for the first six months of 2009 - up by 24 per cent since last year - the Afghan authorities and the international community began preparations for the presidential and provincial council elections.
While the elections were Afghan-led and organized, the international community provided funding and technical support through the UN's elections support project UNDP/ELECT, the international military forces supported Afghan security institutions. UNAMA mobilized and coordinated the international support, providing a crucial link between the international community and Afghans on the ground.
In the run-up to the polling day on 20 August, doubts were raised about how many polling centres could actually be opened. Would anti-government elements act upon their repeated threats to disrupt the process? How much fraud would occur? And how many voters would turn out to cast their votes?
There were achievements on Election Day: approximately 6,200 polling centres opened and stringent security apparatus across the country prevented any major attack although, by government estimates, 73 incidents took place country-wide on 20 August. An initial official figure put the turnout at 39 percent of registered voters.
Despite implementing measures as well as processes, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) was unable to prevent widespread fraud. The international community and UNAMA were chastised by the media for being incapable of stopping fraud, although it was not in their mandate to do so.
The mission's reputation suffered a further blow, after the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, was accused by his deputy Peter Galbraith of allowing so-called 'ghost polling' stations in the south of the country to exist on Election Day.
Just days before a run-off election was scheduled terror struck the UN when five staff members were killed in a dawn attack by gunmen, who stormed a guesthouse in Kabul. Survivors and eyewitnesses of the attack have recounted stories of heroism by UN security officers Louis Maxwell and Lawrence Mefful who were killed while saving many lives.
Yet 2009 was also a year of some achievement. While the presidential elections were far from perfect, SRSG Eide had emphasized before the first ballot was cast, that this was "the most difficult and complex election" he had seen. Afghanistan's was a fledgling democracy plagued with insecurity, poor infrastructure and low literacy levels. However, 4.5 million people registered for new voting cards. Men and women and first-time voters came out and voted - even in the embattled south - where they defied the Taliban's threats, bombs, and bullets. The public debates between candidates and the discourse in the media were robust and civil. Progress was being made by a maturing democratic state. As for fraud, although the country's election body was unable to prevent it, the process was followed, and the mechanisms to detect it worked successfully when the Electoral Complaints Commission threw out 18 per cent of total votes.
In welcoming the IEC's decision to forego a run-off in the presidential race on 2 November, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "The United Nations remains committed to providing every support and assistance to the new Government in helping to push forward progress for all peoples of Afghanistan."
This was also the third year where UNAMA spearheaded efforts during a month-long campaign leading up to International Peace Day on 21 September. The campaign not only encouraged civil society to participate in promoting the urgent need for peace in Afghanistan, but also directly led to a substantial drop in security incidents (similar to the 70 per cent fall in 2008 on Peace Day), after pro-government forces declared a 24-hour ceasefire. The Taliban also allowed health workers access to insecure areas by agreeing to support a Peace Day polio immunisation drive.
UNAMA's efforts toward improving the situation in detention centres such as Bagram air base also moved forward in November, when the US military inaugurated a new prison, replacing the existing facility with one that was to provide detainees with improved living conditions and reintegration programmes.
As coordinator of the humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, UNAMA also launched a US$ 604 million humanitarian action plan to benefit the country's most vulnerable
The year 2009 in Afghanistan may eventually be seen as climacteric, when progress and mistakes were made; and communities were empowered and lessons learnt through the historic elections in August.
The UN in 2010 now faces an opportunity to address these challenges. A high-level international conference to be held in late January in London was to provide an opportunity for the international community to set that agenda, with their Afghan partners.
By Aditya Mehta, UNAMA