Millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats and rain, underscoring their enormous hope from the elections. As NATO/ISAF continue to drawdown, the new leader will find an altered landscape as the country’s wobbly security forces struggle to face down a ferocious insurgency on its own. Landmark decision by President Karzai of not signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US is the single significant factor that created an environment for high voter turn-out that stands around 50 percent including nearly 30 percent women.

Afghans have effectively communicated to the war-fatigued world that they want their voices heard. According to BBC, Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul. “I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote,” she said. “I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election.” Probably, none could better define the post election challenges to Afghan nations than this house wife.

A runoff is expected since none is likely to get the 50 percent of casted vote needed for an outright victory. Apparently there are no major policy differences toward the West among the three front-runners: Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani, and Zalmai Rassoul. They also talk against fraud and corruption, and vow to improve security.

Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani have claimed victory. However, it is still too early. Whoever the victor us, will be confronted with Herculean challenges. The most important dilemma is whether the electoral exercise can translate into peace. Taking cues from Pakistan that had its elections last year, peace did not return until the government entered into dialogue with the TTP and worked out a fragile ceasefire.

Like Pakistan, failure of the Afghan government to integrate Taliban into the political process prior to elections will continue to haunt the new Afghan president. In the run up to elections, Taliban persistently demonstrated their capacity and capability to launch attacks. Though they did not, or could not launch any major attack on election day, it would be naïve to write off their potential. Over one thousand polling stations remained closed and nearly 200 were attacked.

No matter how fair, credible and popular the elections are, Afghanistan has a long way to go before it becomes a sustainably stable state. Strategists and observers from the entire world have been describing Afghanistan’s election as a water shed of critical significance for its stability. The new President will enjoy only partial mandate and his immediate task would be to make his mandate nationwide through a meaningful reconciliation and integration campaign.

Insistence on stationing post-2014 residual garrison is an implicit acknowledgement that Afghan security forces are still under formulation. Their state of preparedness is questionable. In 2012, half of Afghanistan’s army was estimated to be addicted to drugs, and last year 65 employees with the main spy agency were fired due to addiction. Nearly 95 percent of military and police recruits are illiterate. A report released in January by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction concluded that despite a $200 million American funded literacy program, half of Afghanistan’s military and police force will probably remain illiterate until the decade’s end. Afghan army suffers from a 33 percent annual attrition rate. According to US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, 30,000 soldiers deserted in 2013—out of a total force of 185,000!

Anyone thinking of overpowering militants through international or Afghans security forces need to have their heads examined. Success of Afghan government lies in the elimination of the need to employ its security forces on mass scale and for long.

Moreover, Taliban and their allies aren’t Afghanistan’s only destabilizing forces. Governance, economy, drugs, appeal to recruit as Taliban, and warlord militias present formidable challenges. Poverty, insurgency and thorny relations with both neighbours and regional powers also pose serious challenges. Corruption is eating away the fabric of Afghan society. The government and international community are so focused on the violence that economy and corruption rarely get due priority. Economy’s weakness fuels the insurgency as some of the young people who can’t find jobs turn to the Taliban who offer salaries similar to those offered by the national police and army. Unless there are long term donors, Afghan government won’t be able to afford the cost of security forces.

All three front runners mistrust each other. Abdullah Abdullah showed his concerns about “industrial-scale fraud” in the vote. Ashraf Ghani confided to the Guardian that his team was trying to pre-empt the kind of fraud that riddled the 2009 voting. Most serious public suspicion fell on the campaign of Zalmai Rassoul. His campaign was reported to President Karzai for abuse of government resource. After the elections, front runner Ashraf Ghani and another candidate Gul Aghan Sherazri have claimed occurrence of electoral fraud. Diplomats working on the vote say the result only has to be “good enough.”

Pakistan’s support and facilitation of an inclusive Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process remains sincere and steadfast. Hopefully, the new Afghan leadership will look inwards to resolve its grave issues rather than finding external bogies to divert attention from its own inadequacies.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

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