Ahmad Shayeq Bakhshi  - The as-yet-incomplete process of elections in Afghanistan still carry both risks and opportunity. The Independent Election Commission has said a run-off between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai would be delayed beyond a previous date of May 28.

If the process is seen to flout due procedure at the behest of the incumbent’s desire for future slices of power, the wide array of challenges that Afghanistan faces will become even more serious. After all, the naysayers never short of unconstitutional “traditional” alternatives to voting.

On the other hand, a successful conclusion of the process in strict adherence with the constitution and electoral law will create a renewed opportunity to draw a line under the mistakes of the past and put the country back on a sure footing towards continued progress and stability. It is in this latter spirit that millions of Afghans took to the polls in the first round on April 5.

Afghanistan has come a long way since the international community’s re-engagement with it in late 2001. Yet given the amount of world assistance and attention that it has had in the past 13 years, the country should have been further ahead than where it is today. The Afghans and their international partners have invested great effort and sacrifices to make all that happen, but the lack of effective Afghan leadership and political willingness for genuine change has somewhat stunted progress along the way.

Changing the situation for better requires sustained focus to address the three evils of insecurity, narcotics and corruption, which have undermined common efforts across the board. They need to be treated and tackled as interrelated problems in the most literal sense of the term; something that the Afghan government and its international partners have failed to do thus far.

Afghanistan’s main security challenge comes from the ongoing “insurgency”, which in essence represents a mixture of organized crime and extremism that has thrived mainly due to a lack of good governance. There is a need to take meaningful measures to address the root causes and legacy of longstanding acrimony with Pakistan so as to render the country inhospitable to the so-called insurgents. In doing so, the incoming Afghan government ought to speak directly with the core power structures in Islamabad rather than deluding itself with the hitherto ineffective policy of seeking third party arbitration either with Pakistan or the insurgents.

Afghanistan has signed a number of strategic partnership agreements with various countries, the most important of which is the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with the United States. These agreements provide firm basis for comprehensive cooperation between Afghanistan and partner countries for the purpose of further strengthening the Afghan security forces and other state institutions, promoting good governance and facilitating reconstruction assistance.

Outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s defiance of the broad national support in favour of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which in effect provides a mechanism for implementing the SPA, is neither helpful nor justified. His purported proposal for the United States to launch the so-called peace negotiations with the Taliban as a precondition for the conclusion of the BSA presents an oxymoron as it effectively puts the fate of the document at the mercy of the Taliban.

Karzai’s successor will need to sign the BSA at the earliest opportunity after the elections, to consolidate understandings with Afghanistan’s international partners and put an end to the state of uncertainty which has adversely affected both Afghans and their partners. Fortunately, both Abdullah and Ahmadzai have promised to do that.

As an essential complement to the security-centric approach towards lasting peace in the country, the imperative of a truly national reconciliation policy is undeniable. However, Afghanistan should not allow the reconciliation program to become a vehicle for violent groups to undermine relations with its international partners, infiltrate the security forces and corrode national commitment to democratic values.

A commitment to democratic institutions and practices; maintaining and strengthening professional security forces; an enduring partnership with allies; and genuine attempts to ensure cordial relations with the neighbouring countries must form the bedrock of a serious policy for long-term stability. Personalized political considerations should not be allowed to get in the way.

The problem of narcotics in Afghanistan seems to have elicited a curiously disjointed response from the Afghan government and the international community so far. Successive joint survey reports by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Afghan government have suggested close links between narcotics and insecurity.

The Taliban reportedly earn hundreds of millions of dollars from narcotics every year, and the southwestern region where the so-called insurgency is the strongest is also the region supplying the bulk of elicit opium to the world. Moreover, the need for an effective counter narcotics campaign is one key issue on which Afghanistan’s global partners and the neighbouring countries can agree and cooperate in earnest. Yet, no serious attempts have been made to address the problem as an integral part of the security policy.

Our experience of the past decade shows that we cannot afford to treat the counter-narcotics campaign as separate from security policies. The notion that an effective counter-narcotics campaign runs the risk of driving the local population to embrace the “insurgents” needs to be rethought in the light of our decade-long experience and the hard fact that narcotics is already funding terrorism in the country.

Without credible law enforcement, measures to disincentivize the production and trafficking of narcotics, alternative crops programs and public awareness campaigns about the ills of narcotics have failed to tackle the menace. We need to align the sharp edge of our law enforcement efforts more closely with alternative crops programs and such other soft initiatives to bring to bear on the matter for tangible results.

Last but not least, corruption is a serious problem which gnaws at the credibility of state institutions, stymies economic development and growth, undermines public trust in the government and brings disrepute to the country internationally. Tackling corruption at the minimum requires political will and a meaningful program of reform of the state bureaucracy; both in short supply over the past decade, unfortunately.

A future leadership that is not beholden to the electoral support of the incumbent and does not carry its bogey will be best positioned, as it will have the necessary freedom of action, to implement an effective anti-corruption drive to dislodge entrenched kleptocracy in state structures.

By the same token, Afghanistan’s civil service apparatus which has remained a relic of the past despite superficial reform attempts in the past many years needs to undergo meaningful reform in order to minimize corruption and ensure good governance. The reforms need to encompass all the three dimensions of the state bureaucracy including the structures, recruitment and entitlements, and regulations and work procedures and processes.

One cannot overstate the importance of credible elections as the ultimate threshold for the dawn of a new era of reform and development in Afghanistan and its relations with the world. Anything less would only exacerbate our problems and common challenges that the Afghans and our international partners must confront together.–Asia Times Online