A candidate speaks

With the epidemic of violence sweeping through Iraq and Pakistan, Afghanistan has remained surprisingly calm as it enters the second of round of elections today. The first round of voting in April saw Afghanistan’s highest turnout in history, which was especially remarkable in light of the security situation. However, there has been speculation that the second round of election will be marred by apathy and security concerns. In a telediscussion Thursday sponsored by Atlantic Council, Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah rejected this notion, expressing confidence that turnout today would surpass the numbers seen in April. He acknowledged that fraud continues to be an issue, but one that election monitors can mitigate.

US-Afghan relations have deteriorated under President Karzai, who is believed to have supported Zalmai Rassoul for president. Abdullah promised to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) if elected, noting this was crucial to Afghanistan’s future. The Afghan government should have signed the BSA long ago, he said, adding that a lot of damage has been done by the uncertainty created in the absence of any agreement. “Iraq refused to sign a similar agreement,” he noted, vowing not to make the same mistake. The government exists to protect its citizens, not to “sacrifice the rights of citizens under the shadow of peace.” Political stability would pave the way for economic stability: a stable Afghanistan will provide incentives for a wealthy Afghan diaspora to reinvest in the country.

Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA, coupled with uncertainty surrounding the timeline for US troop withdrawal, has fueled corruption, Abdullah said. The lack of political will among Afghans politicians to tackle fraud was also a major problem. An anti-corruption bill is currently languishing in Parliament; if it is not passed in the next few days, Afghan banks will be blacklisted from the international system. Rule of law has not been a priority in Afghanistan. Abdullah promised to change this by reaching out to those who have not been tainted by corruption.

He also promised to improve his country’s strained relationship with Pakistan. Both nations are struggling to combat terrorism, and both stand to benefit from improved cooperation on security and economic issues. The fact that the two countries will soon be under new leadership presents a unique opportunity to improve what has been contentious relationship.

Abdullah was asked to address the exchange of the five Taliban prisoners for American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl. He expressed concern that those who have been released will rejoin the battlefield, noting that a number of prisoners released under similar circumstances quickly returned to combat. He would not speak to the possibility of transferring militants like Mullah Fazlullah to Pakistan, saying only that he opposed the presence of terrorists of any nationality on Afghan soil.

Although his father was Pashtun, Abdullah is usually identified as Tajik, the dominant ethnic group of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban, meanwhile, tend to be composed of ethnic Pashtuns. However, he rejected the notion that his election could aggravate tension between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns as outdated. “People should not start equating Pashtuns with the Taliban,” he warned, noting that many of the terrorists who occupied Afghanistan did not belong to any major Afghan ethnic group, including Osama bin Laden. He pointed out that he won Herat, a largely Pashtun province, by more than 60%.

One lesson from Iraq is that sectarian policies simply do not work. He promised that his administration would include all tribal and ethnic groups. He said that the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that in Afghanistan, Talibanization has been rejected. Afghanistan, he maintains, does not face the levels of sectarianism seen in Iraq.

He also dismissed the findings of poll showing a tightening of the race between rival Ashraf Ghani and himself. It nonetheless appears that Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, may have gained some supporters from Afghanistan’s Uzbek population after choosing Uzbek General Abdurrashid Dostum as one of his running mates.

Asked why Afghanistan should matter to the US, Abdullah said Americans should consider what brought them to Afghanistan in the first place. The US should not forget that in 2001, the Taliban controlled 80% to 90% of the country, and had turned it into an al Qaeda safe haven. While Obama has promised to complete the withdrawal of American troops by 2016, Abdullah said he hopes that “zero option will not mean zero cooperation.”

The international community has invested a great deal of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Abdullah argued that best way to honor these sacrifices would be to sustain the achievements that have been made over the last ten years. Whether or not Afghanistan’s first democratic transition can survive endemic corruption, or the Taliban’s attempts to disrupt it, remains to be seen.

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