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Thursday 28 August 2014

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Again and again, through all my visits to your country, I've been struck by one profound fact: Afghans want and deserve a better future. You want to live without fear, to have the best possible education for your children, health care systems that provide dignity and the jobs and other opportunities that come with a stable economy.

Something else has been clear to me: Democracy is the path Afghans have chosen to achieve that better life.

For more than a decade, President Hamid Karzai has led Afghanistan through triumph and tragedy. I've worked closely with him, and I know that one of his lasting legacies will be how Afghanistan makes its first democratic, peaceful transfer of power.

Afghans took an enormous step on the road toward a stronger democracy in April and June when millions of people went to the polls to choose the country's next president. Every vote was a courageous endorsement of democracy, and an expression of hope for the future.

The United States knows from our own history the road to democracy is bumpy and the journey is not completed overnight. Democracy requires building credible institutions, overcoming divisions, building trust and working together for a brighter future.

Today, Afghanistan and its two presidential candidates face one of those bumps in the road -- a moment of decision. Their ability to overcome the obstacles and work together to honor the votes of millions of their citizens will determine the future of Afghanistan and its relationship with the international community.

The United States, the United Nations and the international community are engaged in the post-election process solely to help the Afghan election institutions restore credibility to the voting. Experts tell me that the audit under way in Kabul is the largest and most complicated election audit ever undertaken anywhere.

Few countries could meet this challenge alone.

Specialists from the UN are working side by side with their Afghan colleagues to ensure that the audit meets the laws of Afghanistan, the highest international standards and, most importantly, the expectations of Afghans. The process, which has been painstaking and slow, will accelerate with the end of Eid al-Fitr. But democracy can't be rushed and every legitimate vote deserves to be counted and respected. The Afghan Independent Election Commission, the UN and dozens of international observers are working night and day to conclude the audit.

The audit is only one part of the challenge confronting democracy in Afghanistan today. Equally important are the actions of the two candidates, Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and their political teams.

On July 12, the two candidates shook hands and agreed to respect the results of the audit. They also agreed to build a unity government that will lead Afghanistan to a better future. The political agreement responds to a challenging situation that requires cooperation between the two leaders and their broad range of supporters.

In reaching the agreement, Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani showed incredible statesmanship. In any democracy, it's very hard after an intense campaign as a presidential candidate to come to that moment where you must put your own aspirations and those of your supporters second to the greater long-term interests of your country. Both candidates managed to overcome their reservations and those of their backers. They set aside political interests in favor of the national interest. They exhibited the statesmanship we expect from great leaders.

Their challenge now is to translate that agreement into a strong working relationship in the new government, whoever wins. The time for politics is over. The time for cooperation is at hand. There is no time to waste, and I encourage both teams to work cooperatively on the critical issues facing their country even as the audit continues.

It's not for outsiders to describe the contents of the political framework both candidates accepted a few days ago. But I was there in the room, and I can tell you what is not in that one-page document.

It does not violate the Afghan constitution – it respects Afghan institutions and the role of the president as the head of government. It does not establish a parliamentary system – it creates a new position of chief executive who will report to the president until the president convenes a loya jirga to determine whether a permanent change is in the best interests of the country.

What the agreement does provide is a critical opportunity for both candidates to move beyond political competition to real statesmanship. It is a chance for them to work together to build an inclusive government that represents all sectors of Afghan society – Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, men and women.

Yes, democracy is an evolutionary process. It isn't easy. But every democracy reaches a decisive moment where the interests of the country must outweigh the interests of politicians. Afghanistan is at that critical point today. Its leaders cannot afford to miss the chance to help bring their people the better lives they deserve and demand. And that is a challenge for two statesmen who both love Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement between Afghan presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani-Ahmadzai on July 12 that would audit all eight million votes cast in the runoff presidential election.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed are those of its author and not representative of TOLOnews.

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In December 2011, many Iraqis went out to the streets to celebrate the exit of US military troops from their country – describing the American soldiers as occupying forces.  But, they could have never imagined that only three years after the exit of the last US combat soldier, their country will witness a brutal sectarian civil warcausing deaths to thousands of Iraqis within a very short period. The rise of the militant extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has already resulted in the fall of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and a number of other cities in Anbar province. The ISIS militants already control the border crossing with Syria and have a stated objective of creating an Islamic state in Syria, Iraq and beyond.

When the last US soldier crossed into Kuwait, President Obama officially declared the end of the Iraq war and described the overall American engagement in the nation as ‘victorious’, something which supposedly provided the right to self-determination to the people of that nation. With the US military involvement in Iraq coming to a gradual end, Obama decided to concentrate his military resources in Afghanistan and ordered a troop surge in 2008. As history would tell, none of the strategies seemed to have worked for either of the countries.

The stated objective of the Iraq war was to overthrow a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, who allegedly had ambitions for chemical and nuclear weapons. The power vacuum created after the exit of Saddam was filled up, under US support, by an exclusive and corrupt Shiite dominated government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The resulting regime openly favored Iranian policies and marginalized Sunni groups. On the other hand, in Afghanistan; theUS strategy was simple - use force to dismantle Taliban infrastructure. Again, that objective was hardly achieved and the net tangible outcome of all these years of US involvement in Afghanistan was that the Taliban now have an official address in Qatar; while the Americans, who claim to never negotiate with terrorists, released five top Taliban commanders from Guantanamo bay.

The situationin Afghanistan might not be similar to that in Iraq.But if the next Afghan government does not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and Americans withdraw all its combat troops after 2016, then thereis a high likelihood that Afghanistan might experience what is currently going on in Iraq in the form of another civil war. Although, unlike Prime Minister Maliki, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was able to create an inclusive government that included former Jihadists and power brokers; but in the pursuit of political inclusiveness, President Karzai failed to devote much attention towards nation-building and creation of a progressive government infrastructure. Indeed, his strategy of sharing power for establishing an inclusive government dramatically promoted patronage networks and nepotism and eventuallyfrustrated any hope of building a functional governmentor deliver good public services to the Afghans.

With no solid government institutions in place and an informal political environment based on patronage and favors; Afghanistan as a nation remains extremely vulnerable to ethnic fragmentation. And as evident from the 2014 Afghan election campaigns, faultlines arealready getting visible among the nation’s diverse ethnic groups and without a determined approach towards delivering an inclusive development oriented government, these cracks are only going to widen. And as history suggests, ethnic violence has always been a very real threat to the Afghan society.

In a nutshell, for deterringany future ethnic conflict, Afghans should remember the bitter experiences of the past and the ongoing turmoil in Iraq should only act as an eye-opener for the future leader of Afghanistan about the consequences of not having a strategic agreement with US. Afghanistan still needs more time to become self-dependent and strategically, it is vital for Afghanistan to develop a long term strategic partnership with the United States. The presence of US troops and continuation of US assistance will help Afghans buy that much needed time to become self-sustainable. At the end of the day, the life and prosperity of ordinary Afghan citizens are at stake.

Director at Research and Advocacy Organization for Development, former Visiting Fellow at Ash Center, Harvard University.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed are those of its author and not representative of TOLOnews.

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In the run-up to the Afghan presidential election an air of excitement and rumors of secret deals and strategic alliances had gripped Afghanistan, including the diaspora.

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