Hope and Chal­lenge

In his 12-year rule, Pres­i­dent Karzai mainly fo­cused on cri­sis man­age­ment. The new Afghan ruler will hope­fully take the coun­try to­wards new fron­tiers of de­vel­op­ment.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Aj­mal Shams

With all eyes on the new lead­er­ship, the Afghans look at the elec­tion process with mixed feel­ings of hope and un­cer­tainty.

This year, the be­gin­ning of spring in Afghanistan will also be the be­gin­ning of the end of Pres­i­dent Karzai’s al­most 12-year rule. The Con­sti­tu­tion of Afghanistan al­lows a pres­i­dent only two terms in of­fice, and Pres­i­dent Karzai has just com­pleted his sec­ond term. One can­not overem­pha­size the sig­nif­i­cance of the April 2014 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions due to sev­eral con­sid­er­a­tions. First and fore­most, it will be the first time ever in Afghanistan’s his­tory that power will be trans­ferred peace­fully from one elected pres­i­dent to an­other. Sec­ond, the tim­ing of this elec­tion is highly cru­cial as all in­ter­na­tional forces shall be leav­ing the coun­try by the end of 2014. The en­dur­ing pres­ence of U.S. forces that will be in­sti­tuted within the pro­posed Bi­lat­eral Se­cu­rity Agree­ment is yet to be de­cided.

Peace talks with the in­sur­gents, the fight against ram­pant cor­rup­tion, build­ing of state in­sti­tu­tions, ac­cel­er­at­ing the pace of re­con­struc­tion and pro­vid­ing an en­vi­ron­ment con­ducive for sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth, are some of the recurring themes in the pro­grams and agen­das of pres­i­den­tial con­tenders. For­eign pol­icy is an­other im­por­tant area in which they are try­ing to show their ca­pa­bil­i­ties to Afghan vot­ers and the in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence.

Be­ing a young democ­racy that started al­most from scratch af­ter the col­lapse of the Tal­iban govern­ment in 2001, the dy­nam­ics of pol­i­tics in Afghanistan are in­ter­est­ing and, at times, fas­ci­nat­ing. Twenty-eight can­di­dates orig­i­nally filed for run­ning the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign out of which only 11 were ac­cepted by the In­de­pen­dent Elec­tion Com­mis­sion. Two can­di­dates have al­ready dropped out of the race. Nine are still in the run but the prob­a­bil­ity of fur­ther dropouts is high. Af­ter decades of civil war and in­sta­bil­ity, suc­cess in pol­i­tics is not guar­an­teed by reach­ing out to the masses from party plat­forms or by pur­su­ing cer­tain po­lit­i­cal agen­das. To­day, be­com­ing prom­i­nent in Afghan pol­i­tics re­quires short-cuts. Be­ing in high-level govern­ment po­si­tions is the eas­i­est way to be­com­ing prom­i­nent in Afghan pol­i­tics. That also means be­com­ing wealthy. Po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion is one of the most se­ri­ous chal­lenges the coun­try faces to­day.

In the ab­sence of cred­i­ble po­lit­i­cal par­ties, the Afghans give more im­por­tance to per­son­al­i­ties. Ed­u­cated Afghans might still be in­ter­ested in can­di­dates’ agen­das but this elec­tion is more about who the can­di­dates are in­stead of what they of­fer. Thus, the cri­te­ria for cred­i­bil­ity are per­sonal profiles of can­di­dates – their past per­for­mance and their ca­pa­bil­ity to deliver on their elec­tion prom­ises.

The com­ing years will be de­ci­sive in ad­dress­ing some of the key chal­lenges that the coun­try faces. The most press­ing is­sue for the fu­ture lead­er­ship will be bring­ing the much-needed peace to the coun­try. With­out peace, there can be no se­cu­rity and with­out se­cu­rity no de­vel­op­ment pro­gram can suc­ceed. That is why all can­di­dates have placed the peace process at the top of their elec­tion agen­das.

The fate of the Bi­lat­eral Se­cu­rity Agree­ment with the U.S. is yet to be de­ter­mined. All pres­i­den­tial run­ners have cat­e­gor­i­cally ex­pressed their com­mit­ment to sign the BSA as soon as they take of­fice if elected. The U.S. com­mit­ment to Afghanistan is cru­cial for the coun­try’s se­cu­rity as well as civil­ian sec­tors. The Afghan Na­tional Se­cu­rity Forces – no doubt a ma­jor ac­com­plish­ment dur­ing the past 12 years – can only con­tinue through sus­tain­able fi­nan­cial and tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance of the U.S. and its NATO al­lies. That is why the fu­ture Afghan lead­er­ship will give high im­por­tance to this re­la­tion­ship with the U.S. No com­pro­mise on re­la­tions with the U.S. seems to be fea­si­ble.

Re­la­tions with neigh­bors, es­pe­cially Pak­istan and Iran, are equally im­por­tant for the fu­ture elected ad­min­is­tra­tion. How­ever, friendly re­la­tions can be achieved with al­ter­na­tive ap­proaches and per­spec­tives.

Dur­ing the past 12 years of Pres­i­dent Karzai’s rule, the fo­cus was more on cri­sis man­age­ment. The decade ahead is that of con­sol­i­dat­ing the gains al­ready made in var­i­ous sec­tors. Afghanistan has been de­scribed as one of the most cor­rupt na­tions in the world by Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional. Im­prov­ing Afghanistan’s in­ter­na­tional im­age will be an im­por­tant task for the fu­ture Afghan lead­er­ship, es­pe­cially if it ex­pects in­ter­na­tional mon­e­tary as­sis­tance. In Tokyo, Afghanistan was pledged bil­lions of dol­lars in de­vel­op­ment aid. Yet, the as­sis­tance was con­di­tional upon the Afghan govern­ment’s per­for­mance in root­ing out sys­temic cor­rup­tion and im­prov­ing gov­er­nance.

Bring­ing change in a post­con­flict and war-rav­aged coun­try is a daunt­ing task. The com­plex­ity of the dy­nam­ics of Afghan pol­i­tics, its for­eign aid-de­pen­dent econ­omy, wide­spread cor­rup­tion and eth­nic di­vi­sions in­sti­gated by years of for­eign in­ter­ven­tion and civil war are the main hur­dles to bring­ing so­cial and eco­nomic sta­bil­ity. Yet, with a proper lead­er­ship in place that has both the vi­sion and po­lit­i­cal will to lead the coun­try in the right di­rec­tion, change is very much pos­si­ble and is, in fact, a com­mon de­sire of all Afghans. They ex­pect that the new po­lit­i­cal or­der will ben­e­fit the com­mon man un­like that of the past decade which cre­ated mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires with lit­tle pos­i­tive im­pact on the qual­ity of life of the aver­age Afghan. The di­vide be­tween the rich and the poor widened sig­nif­i­cantly. How this gulf can be bridged is some­thing for the fu­ture ad­min­is­tra­tion to han­dle among plenty of other chal­lenges.

With all eyes on the new lead­er­ship, the Afghans look at the com­ing elec­tion process with mixed feel­ings of hope and un­cer­tainty. If ev­ery­thing goes well, the coun­try will have an elected ruler in place with a re­newed vi­sion and a pri­or­i­tized pro­gram for peace, sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity. Yet, there are chances of the elec­tion end­ing in a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis due to the com­plex po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment and be­cause of the bu­reau­cracy’s pur­ported in­ter­ven­tion in fa­vor of the can­di­date of its choice.

The po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sta­bil­ity of Afghanistan de­pends on the ef­fi­ciency, le­git­i­macy and com­pe­tence of the new lead­er­ship. As of now, three can­di­dates seem to have emerged as front-run­ners with Dr. Ashraf Ghani top­ping the list. The other two be­ing talked of are Dr. Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah and Dr. Zal­may Ra­sool. While all the three ma­jor con­tenders por­tray more or less sim­i­lar cam­paign slo­gans, Dr. Ghani goes far be­yond elec­tion rhetoric and has come up with a more spe­cific, well-de­fined and fo­cused strat­egy for peace, na­tion-build­ing and state-build­ing.

Pres­i­dent Karzai and his en­tire state ma­chin­ery have a ma­jor re­spon­si­bil­ity on their shoul­ders. There are con­cerns that both Karzai and his team might be us­ing the state ma­chin­ery in fa­vor of a par­tic­u­lar can­di­date. If true, the cred­i­bil­ity of elec­tions will be jeop­ar­dized and that will be a ma­jor blow to the elec­toral process. Pres­i­dent Karzai must en­sure free and fair elec­tions if he wants to go down in his­tory as some­one who peace­fully and smoothly trans­ferred power to a le­git­i­mate suc­ces­sor.

The writer is pres­i­dent of the Afghanistan So­cial Demo­cratic Party (Afghan Mil­lat Party). His main area of in­ter­est is po­lit­i­cal and devel­op­men­tal is­sues.

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