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Saturday Vote a Defining Moment for a Fractured Afghanistan

Runoff Campaign Kicks Off Tomorrow
Saturday’s presidential election represents a new era for Afghanistan. The Afghan people will head to the polls for a run-off election to decide the country’s next president. In April, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister led former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, by 13 points in a first round vote featuring 16 candidates. No candidate met the 50 percent threshold resulting in the upcoming head-to-head contest between Abdullah and Ghani on June 14. Dr. Abdullah continues to be considered the favorite to prevail.

The new president will represent the first transition of power through democratic handover in Afghanistan’s history – and with it come tremendous challenges ranging from an emboldened Taliban insurgency to declining support from the U.S. and international community and sensitive relations with Pakistan to, of course, rampant government corruption. This corruption was even on display during the first round of elections and serious concerns linger around the conduct of the upcoming run-off vote.

In the run-up to the April 5th vote, both candidates made accusations of fraud and manipulation of ballots across the country. Some reports have suggested as many as 500,000 votes could have been manipulated away from Dr. Abdullah, preventing him from reaching the 50 percent threshold and winning the presidency outright. Other reports showed polling stations never opened or had little activity, particularly in areas in which security has been problematic. Over 700 reports of fraud flooded into the authorities from around the country. As a result of the reports, the Afghan Independent Election Commission was forced to dismiss over 3,000 election workers for fraud or misconduct. The government has vowed to fully investigate all the reports of misconduct but resources are tight and time is short.

Despite the problems linked to the first round vote, most international organizations and governments have hailed the April 5 poll as a success. Indeed, the electoral turnout was much higher than expected with over seven million voters heading to the polls.

Approximately 35 percent of the voters were women – a new force in Afghanistan politics that will play a significant role in deciding the next president. Both Abdullah and Ghani recognize this new political dynamic and have tailored their campaigns to speak to the increasing influential contingency. Additionally, the Afghan people turned out during the first election to polling stations despite venomous threats by the Taliban and other extremist groups clearly threatened with Afghanistan’s push for representative government and free market economy.

It’s true though that this lauding of an admittedly flawed election is the product of a very low bar for electoral success in a country that has only known war as the traditional campaign trail to national leadership. By this comparison, the election was most certainly a success.

The electoral problems represent a small dose of the challenges the new president will soon face. Afghanistan consistently ranks dead last, or near last, on most international corruption indicators, including Transparency International’s 2013 Index on which the country is tied with North Korea and Somalia as the world’s most corrupt country. Dr. Abdullah recently noted corruption is a serious threat to the “stability of the country” and has vowed to clean up public corruption if elected president. To do so will be a mountainous climb given the lengthy rap sheet of corruption between Afghan government officials and the nefarious business deals executed with close associates of the outgoing president – such as the infamous Kabul Bank fiasco in which nearly $900 million (92% of the bank’s portfolio or 5% of the country’s entire economic output) was siphoned off to just 19 individuals with close ties to Karzai.

The subsequent bailout cost the U.S. taxpayers over $800 million, a scenario that will not repeat itself. The expectation by some in Afghanistan that this type of government conduct will continue will be difficult to break. The new president will be under tremendous pressure to cut the same kind of corrupt bargains.

The cycle must be broken if Afghanistan is going to have any chance at progress. After more than a decade of intervention, as a nation we must believe that some modicum of progress is possible. The new president will not only have to stop this pilfering from happening, but also prove to the Afghan people that they can trust his government to act in their interest.

If Afghanistan is going to make any gains through democratic reforms, the newly elected president must start with addressing corruption at all levels of government and developing a comprehensive government financing plan independent of American support. Any such plan should include a professionalization of the Afghan Anti-corruption Authority and a robust natural resource management strategy to fund the government over the long term. The new president must also have the political will to clean house within the ranks of corrupt officials, ensure a savvy balance of public resources are provided to ethnic groups, and bolster the public administration capabilities of an underfunded government.

They will do it, unfortunately, without meaningful support from the United States and the international coalition.

Although both presidential candidates have vowed to support and sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S. to maintain a residual force level in Afghanistan, U.S. forces will continue to draw-down personnel. American aid budgets will surely decrease in the coming years. The Taliban will likely view this transitional period as an opportunity to intensify its assault on new government and secure control over areas throughout the country, potentially including Kabul. Signs of an emboldened Taliban have been seen in the recent Karachi airport attack and the Serena Kabul Hotel attack and they have vowed to increase the violence during and following Saturday’s vote. They also view the recent release of five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay as a major victory for the insurgency and at least one of the released terrorists has promised to return to the battlefield.

The Afghan government must take more responsibility for its financing, internal affairs and security, and international relations. The current Afghan government can help propel this process by doing everything within its power to ensure a free and fair election on Saturday and send a message to the Taliban and the world that something approaching a modern democracy can work in Afghanistan.

The Congress recently passed a resolution urging the government of Afghanistan to conduct transparent, credible, and inclusive elections – as if that needed to be done. But the international community as well should continue to put pressure on the Karzai government and the Afghan Independent Election Commission to address the issues from the first round, ensure security at polling stations and conduct a credible vote.

To lead this troubled nation through the upcoming transition and beyond, the new Afghan president will desperately need some foundation of legitimacy in the form of a free and fair election on Saturday and an aggressive posture against the inter-meddling of terrorist groups. It would be a major victory for a mission often defined by false starts and stunning failures.
BY:Thomas J. Basile

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