SHIELDED FROM public attention by the mounting crises in Iraq and North Korea, Afghanistan slipped into the new year without having achieved the stability it desperately needs for a sustained recovery -- but also without plunging into chaos. That it has avoided famine, civil war and the resurgence of serious military challenges to U.S. forces during the past 12 months is something of an accomplishment, if only in a negative sense; so is the survival of its liberal and Western-oriented president, Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai, increasingly popular around the country, has become more aggressive in trying to extend the rule of his government outside of Kabul, and lately he has made some incremental progress. A few second-rank thieves and thugs have been expelled from positions of power in the provinces, a new national currency has been introduced, a landmark highway reconstruction project is finally underway, and a burst of new reconstruction activity is lined up for the spring.

But Mr. Karzai and his Afghan and Western allies are still in a precarious position, one that in the next year could as easily tip toward anarchy as toward the self-reinforcing cycle of economic revitalization and governmental reconstruction that is hoped for. Warlords still control much of the countryside, as well as most of the national customs revenue that Mr. Karzai's government is entitled to; one of them, Ismail Khan, ruler of the western city of Herat, may be more responsive to the mullahs of Iran than to the nominal authorities in Kabul. Opium production is booming. U.S. officials concede that seven of Afghanistan's 33 provinces are still not secure enough for aid and reconstruction operations. Attempts to ambush U.S. troops are increasing, and there are reports of a new enemy alliance, made up of former Taliban forces and those of another extremist faction, that may be operating training camps and preparing for concerted military operations.

Which way Afghanistan goes this year will likely depend in large part on how the United States handles two crucial continuing tasks: shoring up security with its military forces and channeling sufficient aid to restart the national economy. Though it hasn't gotten much attention, there has been a major increase in U.S. and allied troop deployments over the last year. There are now some 9,500 U.S. troops in the country, along with 5,000 from allied nations; the number of Americans has more than doubled since a year ago. In addition, the Pentagon -- which stubbornly resisted Mr. Karzai's pleas for a nationwide international peacekeeping force -- has begun to move toward creating a functional equivalent. Eight or more regional clusters of civilian and military forces are planned for deployment near important provincial centers in the coming months; they will combine technical help for reconstruction with a force that will be small but credible, given the backup of U.S. air power. A war with Iraq or a further escalation of the crisis in Korea could test the Pentagon's ability to sustain this operation and could increase Afghan resistance to it; yet it will be vital to see it through.

The other crucial struggle will play out in Congress in the coming weeks. Late last year legislation was enacted providing for $3.3 billion in new U.S. aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. At an annual rate, that would about match the $850 million that has been invested in aid and reconstruction since the Afghan campaign began. Yet nowhere near that amount has been appropriated for the current fiscal year: Legislation passed by the Senate currently calls for only $157 million in new aid, while the House version budgets $295 million. The Bush administration and the congressional leadership need to follow through on the funding commitments they have made, beginning with the current year. If aid to Afghanistan is postponed or choked off in the coming months, there may be no reconstruction to fund in the future.