The start of 2011 ushered in a political crisis in Afghanistan, which saw President Hamid Karzai locked in a stalemate with the country's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) over the results of the disputed 2010 parliamentary elections, raising questions about his legitimacy. Ultimately, in August Karzai announced that the final authority on election results indeed rested with the IEC.

The year marked the start of significant troop withdrawals of NATO forces from Afghanistan. In June, United States President Barack Obama ordered his country's military to withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of the year, with a more significant pull-out to occur by mid-2012. Other NATO countries made similar plans.

But with the reduction of foreign troops, there are significant question marks over how Afghan forces will perform on their own. Civilian casualties in the country continued to soar. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011, an increase of 8 per cent compared with 2010 and a 25 per cent increase from 2009. Seventy-seven per cent of the deaths were attributed to anti-government forces, although critics noted that the tally appeared to exclude a substantial number of civilians who were killed during NATO-led night raids.

Afghan Local Police (ALP) will in part step in to replace international troops, particularly in rural areas. But in a September report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that such a civilian defence force could ratchet up ethnic tensions if authorities fail to prevent ethnic or political interest groups from commandeering the process.

A year after US officials announced the discovery of US$ 1 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits in the country, Afghanistan made significant moves to profit from its resources. In late December, authorities announced they had inked a deal with China National Petroleum Corporation to explore for oil in the northern Amu Darya Basin.

In November, Afghanistan awarded contracts to Indian and Canadian companies to develop the potentially lucrative Hajigak iron ore deposit in Bamyan province, home to ethnic Hazara. But watchdog groups were quick to warn of the dangers associated with resource development. A local civil society organization, Integrity Watch Afghanistan said: 'In the peaks of opportunity, Hajigak Mine can be a source of revenue, employment and development, or a curse if not [dealt with] properly.' Afghanistan is a candidate country for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), and its government has committed itself to EITI's internationally recognized transparency principles.

Religious and ethnic tensions continued to simmer throughout 2011. There were reports that children from Hindu and Sikh communities were forced to drop out of school because of bullying.

In December, a suicide bomber killed at least 19 people at a funeral procession. The blast went off in Uzbek and Tajik-dominated Takhar province, where Taliban attacks had been relatively rare until recent years.

Also in December, at least 60 died and another 200 were injured when a suicide bomber struck an important Shi'a shrine in Kabul, in an attack blamed on Pakistani militants. On the same day, a bomb detonated near a Shi'a mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing four. The attacks coincided with the major Shi'a festival of Ashura.

The year also saw much debate over the US and the Afghan governments' stated plans to involve the Taliban in peace talks. Considering the Taliban's history in Afghanistan, the situation for minorities – particularly women from minority communities – remains a crucial concern. Some members of a coalition of ethnic minorities, made up of prominent opposition leaders who were members of the former Northern Alliance that fought against the Taliban in the 1990s, have said they support peace talks, but minority communities must be a part of the discussion if they are to be successful.

Advocates say women's rights in the country are already under threat, despite the previous 10 years of relative progress. An Oxfam briefing issued in October said: 'The Afghan government has already demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice women's rights for political ends.' The paper referred to the Shi'a Personal Status Law that President Karzai approved in 2009, in exchange for political support from fundamentalist elements within the Shi'a community. The highly criticized legislation allows husbands to withhold food from their wives for not having sex, hands custody of children to fathers in divorce proceedings and forces women to seek permission from their husbands in order to work.

The Karzai-appointed High Peace Council, which is tasked with seeking peace talks with the Taliban, also includes former warlords, critics say. A deputy chair of the council told the Institute for War & Peace Reporting that women should not fear a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban. But he also said women should not expect 'unconditional freedom in areas where Islamic rules and Afghan values were dominant'. In any event, the future of the peace talks is far from certain. In September, a suicide bomber assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik who had headed the High Peace Council, dealing an early blow to the process itself.

The year also ended in controversy after Karzai replaced three members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Authorities said the commissioners had finished their terms on the independent body, but rights groups questioned whether the move was in response to the AIHRC's planned release of a report covering war crimes in the country, which was scheduled to be released during 2012.

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