The Afghan government could implode after NATO troops pull out in 2014, particularly if presidential elections are fraudulent, according to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
A repeat could undermine what little hope remains for stability after the Afghan government takes full responsibility for security from US-led NATO forces, the analysis by the respected Brussels-based group says.
The report, Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition, says the country is on course in 2014 for another set of fraudulent elections after the chaotic presidential and parliamentary polls in 2009 and 2010.
"There is a real risk that the regime in Kabul could collapse upon NATO's withdrawal," Candace Rondeaux, the ICG's senior Afghanistan analyst, says in the report.
"The window for remedial action is closing fast."
"The Afghan army and police are overwhelmed and underprepared for the transition," Rondeaux says in the report.
"Another botched election and resultant unrest would push them to breaking point."
The coalition, which has waged an 11-year war against Taliban fighters, is reducing its troop numbers from a peak of some 130,000, and almost all combat forces are scheduled to quit the country by the end of 2014.
Within hours of the report's publication, a suicide car bomber targeted on Monday a police station in Lashkar Gar, capital of the southern Helmand province, killing two intelligence agents and wounding 15 other people.
Afghan police are increasingly targets of such assaults as they take a bigger role in the fight against the Taliban in the run-up to of the NATO withdrawal.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Kabul, Rondeaux said: "Today you have an economic crisis which is growing by the day, and there is a lot of fear among Afghans over the future of President Hamid Karzai's regime, and no one knows what is going to happen."
|Dangers of a numbers-focused strategy for ANSF
She said that up until now there are no visible preparations for the elections. "Instead what you have are the gears of transition working in reverse against the gears of transformation," Rondeaux said.
"Everyone was hoping that 2014 would be the dawn of the new age politically for the country. Now there is a great deal of concern that these elections may not even happen."
The Karzai and the parliament have failed to take any serious steps towards preparing for a clean vote, Rondeaux said.
"Karzai seems more interested in perpetuating his own power by any means rather than ensuring credibility of the political system and long-term stability of the country," she said.
Karzai is constitutionally required to step down at the end of his second term in 2014, and has said he will do so, but there are fears that he might try to manipulate the polls to ensure the election of an ally, possibly one of his brothers.
"The danger is Karzai's top priority is maintaining control, either directly or via a trusted proxy," Rondeaux says in the ICG report.
"He and other leading members of the elite may be able to cobble together a broad temporary alliance, but political competition is likely to turn violent on the heels of NATO's withdrawal."
Renewed strife seen
The ICG report says the possibility cannot be excluded that Karzai will declare a state of emergency as a means of extending his power, which would accelerate state collapse and likely precipitate a civil war.
"If that occurs, there would be few opportunities to reverse course in the near term. Securing the peace in Afghanistan would then remain at best a very distant hope," Rondeaux says.
|From the perspective of one neighbourhood in Herat
The ICG is not alone in predicting trouble ahead. Gilles Dorronsoro, Afghan expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also sees renewed strife and even a Taliban return to power.
"After 2014, the level of US support for the Afghan regime will be limited and, after a new phase in the civil war, a Taliban victory will likely follow," Dorronsoro wrote in a recent analysis.
This sort of forecast contrasts sharply with assurances of a secure Afghan future by Western governments desperate to get out of the long war, but gloom is widespread.
The outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Afghanistan said on Monday that for ordinary Afghans the conflict had become worse during his seven years in the post.
"I am filled with concern as I leave this country," Reto Stocker said.
"Since I arrived here in 2006, local armed groups have proliferated, civilians have been caught between not just one but multiple front lines, and it has become increasingly difficult for ordinary Afghans to obtain health care."