In less than six months Afghanistan will face one of the most crucial crossroads in its history: the chance for a peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another. A successful presidential election that is free and transparent is crucial for continued progress in the country beyond 2014, with the risk of failure potentially dealing a difficult blow to a populace exhausted by setbacks.
A positive outcome will not be easy, and will need support from two key groups: Afghanistan’s younger generation who will live with the consequences of the election, and an international community that has invested so much into Afghanistan in the past decade.
At an Asia Society gathering of young Afghanistan leaders in Kabul last month, I could sense the frustration from my peers about the lack of faith that Afghanistan can truly stand on its own in coming years. The international press has done a good job of presenting the worst case scenarios for Afghanistan if the elections fail just as foreign troops are withdrawing. In this scenario, the Taliban and other insurgent groups will take over, the government will collapse, and the country will be ruled by factions engaged in continual civil war and skirmishes. This attitude not only turns away international groups, but discourages people in Afghanistan who see or hear the same message.
There is another scenario that must be presented, and one my peers and I, living and working in Afghanistan, feel is just as likely. In this other future for our country, fair and transparent elections will bring in a legitimate government that can work to keep insurgents at bay. There will be no return to the dark ages prior to 2000 that so many Afghans fear, with fewer innocent civilians being murdered and disruptions to civil society minimized.
A key element of finding that success is for Afghanistan’s younger population to buy into the new government. This sector of the population makes up two-thirds of the country and are more connected to the world than their predecessors growing up during the era of the Taliban. Many of them hold positions as public administrators in the Afghan government, and some have returned from quality educations overseas to become role models of change in Afghanistan’s economic, social, and political life. There is no reason why Afghanistan can’t produce world-class leaders that bring decisive, committed, and responsible decision-making to lead the country at this critical time.
That said, the country must work to bring in those young people on the fringes of the new wave. Many live in rural areas and are either unemployed or reliant on farming, creating a situation in which joining insurgents is a tempting option. If these groups of young people are excluded from the process it will not bode well for the new government.
Women have also been sidelined for too long. Many women are not part of the political process and are therefore excluded from vital decisions. They should be given a chance to vote in a free and fair manner in the election, and need more chances to lead some of the district councils in remote villages.
The international community should engage Afghanistan at this crucial time by providing support for a free and fair transition of power. Rather than cut and run, the U.S. and other players should see this as a chance to give up the role of occupier for one of ally and support.
This commitment should not end, of course, after the election. If the international community wants to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, they should continue to engage in the country into 2014 and beyond. This is the only way Afghanistan, and the world, will truly be able to look back at the previous decade and say all the pain and suffering was worth the cost, and that a new era has begun.
Jamil Danish is Strategic Communication Policy Advisor to the Minister for Rural Development of Afghanistan (MRRD) and a 2013 Asia Society 21 Afghanistan Young Leader.