Op-Ed
Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
The Washington Post
Washington, DC
August 3, 2009


In the run-up to Afghanistan's presidential and provincial council elections on Aug. 20, Afghan and international political elites and journalists will pass judgment on the past five years. But only the Afghan people can decide who will best lead their country for the next five.

Afghanistan's elections present an opportunity for the country's citizens to create a future of prosperity and peace for their children. Five years ago, with guidance from the international community, Afghanistan held its first elections and began the process of building a new state -- a complex and difficult effort following 25 years of invasion, civil war, oppression and foreign-inspired terrorism. This time, Afghan authorities bear the full responsibility for fulfilling their people's right to choose their leaders, with the international community assisting, not leading. But none of this will matter unless the voters have a real choice and know what each candidate stands for. There must be a serious debate among the candidates and by the Afghan people.

The issues at stake are numerous and weighty. How will the next president finish building a strong army and police force respected by the people and fully capable of providing security? Can the nation's wealth be used for investment and development in an accountable manner? How will young people be educated and trained to develop the human capital that Afghanistan needs to move forward? What policies will be adopted to encourage the return to Afghan society of those who renounce ties with international terrorism and the use of force while accepting the constitution of the nation? What are the candidates' ideas for governing Afghanistan; how, for example, should the provincial councils evolve to give a real voice to Afghans across the land? And how can the international community better partner with Afghanistan to achieve peace, justice and economic progress?

In March, President Obama announced a new U.S. strategy that includes a major commitment of American men and women -- civilian and military -- to Afghanistan, as well as important new financial contributions to help accelerate development. We will continue to work with the next Afghan administration to field capable and sufficient Afghan National Army and police units; to support effective government personnel systems; to help combat corruption; to provide financial assistance to key Afghan institutions; to promote agricultural development; to address detention issues; to support Afghan-led reconciliation efforts; and to fix contracting practices. All of these efforts must be underpinned by accountability on both sides. The international community looks forward to strengthening its partnership with whichever candidate emerges from the elections, based upon a renewed spirit of cooperation.

So it is not just the Afghan people who need to understand the candidates' platforms and plans. We members of the international community need to know these things, too. The United States is one nation among a great partnership of more than 40 NATO and non-NATO countries that have joined with the people and government of Afghanistan. We have lost our sons and daughters, just as Afghans have, and we have invested significant development assistance during difficult economic times. Our commitment is extraordinary and long term. We are prepared to forge ahead based on common interests and mutual obligations. We stand with absolute impartiality regarding who should be president of Afghanistan. But all of us will benefit from clarity as to what policy goals we should expect from the next administration.

This is an exciting time to be in Afghanistan. Walking through the bazaars of Helmand, Wardak, Kunduz, Herat, Uruzgan, Khost and numerous other provinces where the Afghan people are defending against destabilizing forces, I have seen their hope and thirst for progress. Candidates -- some prominent, some relatively new to the national stage -- are for the most part embracing their responsibility to discuss the issues. Ongoing televised debates remind me that, though we may be separated by barriers of language and culture, the democratic process in Afghanistan is like our own: an intense competition of political ideas to the benefit of the common citizen.

On Aug. 20, Afghan men and women will travel great distances -- in some cases, unfortunately, under threat of attack -- to make their voices heard. In the final weeks of this election season, the Afghan people deserve to know the platforms and implementation plans of each candidate. And so do we. The stakes are high and the opportunity great for all of us. The Afghan people and international community must be positioned to move quickly in partnership immediately after the inauguration of Afghanistan's next president. We have no time to lose as we work together to deliver peace, justice, economic opportunity and regional understanding.

It is time for a serious debate.