Building hope in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s presidential election held this month — the third such election since the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001 — showed that despite allegations of voting fraud, democracy has started to take root in a country that has suffered from incessant war since 1979. More than 7 million of an estimated 12 million eligible voters cast their votes on April 5 for a 55 to 60 percent turnout, braving Taliban attacks against polling stations. That’s much better than the 30 to 35 percent voter turnout for the 2009 presidential election.

According to preliminary results released Saturday, none of the candidates was able to secure the minimum 50 percent of valid votes needed for a victory. A runoff will likely be held in early June between the top two contenders — former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Whoever wins, the country is at a crossroads. Whether Afghanistan can become a nation capable of standing on its own will depend on whether the new president can exercise strong leadership to achieve reconciliation among the country’s ethnic and political groups, and to accomplish political stabilization following the planned withdrawal of most U.S. troops.

Prior to the election, the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States had deteriorated to a low point because of President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement on the legal status of U.S. forces who would remain in the country after the pullout of most U.S. troops. The first important job for the new president will be to sign the agreement to improve ties with Washington.

Currently the U.S. deploys about 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. It plans to keep up to 10,000 troops there even after the withdrawal to carry out cleanup operations against extremist groups, and to train and advise Afghan forces.

Karzai apparently did not want to be accused of agreeing to a long-term deployment of U.S. troops, so he left the signing of the accord to his successor.

The withdrawal of a large number of U.S. troops carries the risk of allowing the Taliban to recover lost ground and even seize power. Containing the Taliban’s activities and influence will be the most daunting task for the new president.

But history since America’s military intervention in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shows that sheer force alone will not bring peace to the country. At its peak, more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers were in Afghanistan; more than 2,300 of them have been killed. Still, the U.S. has not succeeded in eliminating the Taliban, and terrorist attacks continue to undermine the country’s security situation.

To prevent a worst-case scenario — a Taliban military takeover — the new president should seek peace negotiations with the Taliban — though that will be a formidable challenge.

The new president will face other difficult challenges. With tax revenue accounting for a mere 20 percent of the national budget, Afghanistan’s finances are in a state of failure. The country also lacks a sense of national unity because of the ethnic diversity of its population and the military cliques that keep their own strongholds in various areas of the country.

International support for Afghanistan’s weak government is indispensable. Japan, the second-largest donor for the country following the U.S., has provided or pledged ¥500 billion since 2001 for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Tokyo must aid the new president in his endeavors to bring political stability to Afghanistan.

For its part, the Afghan government should make serious efforts to eradicate the scourge of corruption that plagues the country. Unless this pervasive problem is solved, foreign aid will be of little help in rebuilding the nation.