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After Elections, Afghans Now Must Focus on the Road Ahead - 2004-10-14

More than 75% of Afghanistan’s newly registered voters cast ballots in the recent election. Although threatened violence failed to materialize, there were complaints of voter fraud. This initially led some candidates to declare the election invalid. However, they have backed down from those early claims and have agreed to let a United Nations-appointed panel investigate the matter.

That the election went off without any significant attacks anywhere in the country is a major achievement, says J. Alexander Thier, of the Hoover Institution, a research organization at Stanford University in California. “In a way, these elections really demonstrate the potential of what could have happened over the last three years in Afghanistan,” he says.

Mr. Thier, who spent 2002 and 2003 in Kabul as a consultant to the interim Afghan government, says if the United States and the international community had paid as much attention to Afghanistan over the past three years as they did in the past three months, the country would be much more stable and secure.

“Unfortunately, this upsurge in attention really appears to have been keyed to the election,” he says. “And now that the election has passed, I think that there’s a fear that they will go back to what has really been the hallmark of the last three years, which is paying a lot more attention to Iraq, devoting a lot more resources to Iraq and perhaps letting Afghanistan start to wither on the vine as far as the real long-term goal of establishing real institutions and democracy in that country.”

Indeed, speaking on NBC’s Today Show, Afghanistan’s interim president, Hamid Karzai, urged Americans not to forget his country now that elections are over. “Afghanistan in terms of its ability, its capability to administer itself, to stand on its own two feet, will take some years to come. For that we will need continued assistance from the world,” he said.

Mr. Karzai, who is widely expected to win the election once the ballots are counted, will face numerous challenges in the years ahead. Top among them will be establishing security. Radek Sikorski of the American Enterprise Institute, a research organization in Washington, says it’s a huge challenge and the West needs to be realistic.

“We shouldn’t imagine that Afghanistan is going to be like Switzerland in a few years time,” he says. “There will always be some bandits and some insurgent activity on the Afghan/Pakistani border. It’s been there since Marco Polo, and there’s no reason why it should go away suddenly now.”

The new government must also rebuild the country’s infrastructure and government institutions, develop the economy and stem the opium drug trade, which has flourished in recent years. While foreign governments and many non-governmental organizations are on the ground in Kabul trying to help, Radek Sikorski says Afghans should take the lead.

“First, it’s cheaper because Afghans, unlike foreigners, do not expect total security,” he says. “And they’re committed to their own country and they do not flee at the first sign of danger or the first murder. And secondly, of course, local labor is much cheaper than these expensive foreign consultants. So for the sake of fostering Afghan skills, Afghan pride in their own country and in the reconstruction, and for the sake of economy of resources I would give much more of the jobs to the Afghans themselves.”

Many Afghans are eager and willing to help their new government, including the three million refugees who have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. But according to Alexander Thier, they need the West’s support.

“I think Afghans fear that if the international community were to go, there is not much to protect them,” he says. “And unfortunately, we tend to look at these problems, which really require decades of attention, only over a couple of years. And Afghanistan in order to be truly a success will require the sustained attention of the international community for at least another decade to come.”

After all, Mr. Thier says, nobody wants a repeat of 1989, when after years of supporting the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet invasion and occupation, the United States dramatically reduced its commitments to the country once the Soviets withdrew. Years of civil war followed, and in 1996 the Taliban came to power.