As the United States and NATO are preparing to significantly reduce their troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year, Afghans are focused on the April 5 presidential election.
A complex interaction of three critical factors will determine the future of Afghanistan and the outcome of U.S. and NATO involvement in the country since the fall of the Taliban.Whether Afghanistan will be able to preserve the gains of the past 12 years or face chaos and instability will largely depend on credible and transparent presidential and provincial elections, the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces to protect Afghanistan from terrorists and insurgents and whether Afghanistan receives sufficient and effective economic and military aid beyond 2014 based on meeting anti-corruption and human-rights benchmarks.
The Afghan people have taken democracy to heart and are actively engaged in the processes of the presidential elections. The mass media and social media, which have advanced in important ways in the past 12 years, are abundantly utilized to inform the public of the candidates’ agendas and to increase public interest in the process. The public meetings that the candidates have launched in different corners of the country have provided opportunities for public engagement.
The legitimacy of the upcoming elections is crucial for Afghanistan’s path to stability. The Afghan people accepted a fraudulent presidential election last time for the sake of keeping the peace, but this time, that is not likely to happen. If these elections are marred by corruption and fraud, the stage will be set for deteriorating conditions. Terrorist and insurgent groups will take advantage of the situation in order to promote their agenda of taking control of the Afghan government yet again. The future of the country will be bleak, and the efforts of the United States and NATO countries, as well as those of Afghans – many of whom have sacrificed their lives – will be compromised.
The U.S. and NATO should be proactive and demand noninterference in the election process from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his administration. Candidates should abide by election rules or be disqualified. That requires more diplomatic pressure than the last election process, as the independence of the Independent Election Commission may be in question.
If the election results appear to be engineered or affected by high levels of fraud and the Independent Election Commission does not take action, the U.S. and NATO should not recognize the outcome of the election. As we saw with the previous election, accepting illegitimacy for expediency may lead to gains in the short term, but it will lead to greater loss and damage later. People will lose further confidence in government, and insurgent groups will consequently gain support.
The U.S. and NATO should focus on post-Karzai Afghanistan and how to assist the country to ensure continued progress and stability. They should not dwell on Karzai’s refusal to sign the negotiated Bilateral Security Agreement, as most prominent presidential candidates have publicly declared that they will sign the BSA once they are elected and take office.
The majority of Afghans have time and again shown their support for U.S. and NATO assistance, even when those parties have made grave mistakes, such as basing their strategy on an individual (Karzai) instead of on Afghan institutions and representative bodies.
When a body of representatives that Karzai recently convened voted in favor of Afghanistan entering into the BSA with the United States, Karzai walked out of the meeting and has since gone against the wishes of that majority. Reactions to Karzai’s statements have caused the relationship between Washington and Afghanistan to appear strained. In reality, the Afghan people want cooperation with the U.S. and NATO as long as their rights are respected, human-rights violators are not rewarded and the number of civilian casualties is reduced.
At this critical crossroads, the U.S. and NATO need to focus not on troop numbers and withdrawal dates, but on benchmarks for a transition that leaves Afghanistan in a situation that will not allow for terrorists and insurgents to take over again. The recent attacks on Kabul’s Lebanese Taverna restaurant and Serena Hotel exhibit the Taliban and their supporters’ violence and lack of respect for civilians, whether foreign or Afghan.
The problem is across the border in Pakistan, where militant groups continue to plan attacks on sites in Afghanistan with support – whether direct or indirect – from the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s main intelligence service. In the 1980s, when the Afghan insurgent groups known collectively as the mujahedeen fought against the Afghan communist government, which received support from the Soviet Union, Pakistan received greater economic and military benefits from the United States.
With Russia advancing in Crimea and Pakistan’s state divided by military and civilian powers, stability in Afghanistan is even more important for regional and world security.
The U.S. and NATO should work with legitimate Afghan leaders and require accountability for the use of funds, including when these are spent by U.S. or European contractors, to reduce corruption. As the foreign military presence becomes lighter, economic assistance should be increased to strengthen Afghan civil society and the private sector. Training and support should be given to the Afghan National Security Forces when benchmarks for accountability and human rights are met.
The NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan was necessary, but its success will be judged – based on the country’s stability, security and corruption levels – after the majority of foreign forces withdraw. Whether Afghanistan can break out of its cycle of conflict and use its resources wisely will determine whether it has a real shot at long-term stability.
Nadir Atash is an Afghan-American educator, author and entrepreneur. He was a senior adviser to the Transportation Ministry in Afghanistan, president of Ariana Airlines, and co-founded the Afghanistan Advocacy Group and the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce. He is the author of “Turbulence: The Tumultuous Journey of One Man’s Quest for Change in Afghanistan.” This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).