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Afghanistan again at a crossroads.

Nadir AtashAs 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 upcoming April 5 presidential elections. A complex interaction of three critical factors will determine the future of Afghanistan and the outcome of US and NATO involvement in the country since the fall of the Taleban.

Whether Afghanistan will be able to preserve the gains of the past 12 years or face chaos and instability will largely depend on (1) credible and transparent presidential and provincial elections, (2) the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to protect Afghanistan from terrorists and insurgents, and (3) 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, two important gains of the past 12 years, are abundantly utilized to inform the public on the candidates' agendas and 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 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 will not likely 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 United States and NATO should be proactive and demand non-interference in the election process from the 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 US 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 US and the NATO should focus on post-Karzai Afghanistan and how to assist the country to ensure continued progress and stability. They should not dwell on President Karzai's refusal to sign the negotiated Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), 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 US 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 President Karzai recently convened voted in favor of Afghanistan entering into the BSA with the United States, President 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 the US and Afghanistan to appear strained. In reality, the Afghan people want cooperation with the US 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 US 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 Taleban and their supporters' violence and lack of respect for civilians, whether foreign or Afghan.

The US and NATO should work with legitimate Afghan leaders and require accountability for the use of funds, including when spent by US 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, and 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.

The writer is an Afghan-American educator, author, and entrepreneur. (In partnership with The Mark News)

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Apr 4, 2014
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