FIRST, the good news. A third consecutive presidential election in Afghanistan is a historic achievement — Pakistan has only recently managed to hold consecutive on-schedule parliamentary elections.

There is genuine competition, in the sense that the winner of the Afghan presidential election is far from clear. And, after the disastrous and disputed election of 2009, there is a possibility that the 2014 Afghan presidential election may be politically more credible than the last one. To be sure, much hinges on an acceptable electoral process.

This is the year of transition for Afghanistan on the political and security fronts and the country needs a capable and credible leader in the presidency to steer it through arguably the most difficult time in its modern history since the Bonn Agreement of 2001. Now, to the less welcome news. Much as Afghanistan needs a strong and credible leadership via an acceptable presidential electoral process, there are many, many hurdles in the way.

The most obvious hurdle is the credibility of the electoral process. Because international coverage of Afghanistan is shaped by and large by the Western press, there has been much focus on the evacuating of foreign election monitors after several attacks against foreigners in recent weeks. While fewer monitors and observers is certainly an issue, there are other problems elsewhere that have received attention.

A major one is the decision by the Afghan election authorities to not make provision for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, overwhelmingly of Pakhtun origin, to cast their votes as they were allowed to do in 2004.

With turnout already predicted to be a significant problem in the Pakhtun-dominated south and east of Afghanistan, the absence once again of the refugee vote could dramatically impact results — an outcome that myopic politicians inside Afghanistan do not appear too concerned about.

Given that legitimacy in the eyes of the Pakhtuns of the next president could shape much of what happens in the year or two ahead in Afghanistan, the large-scale disenfranchisement of those displaced by war appears to be a short-sighted idea.

Beyond that, there is uncertainty, and fear, shrouding every aspect of Afghanistan over the course of the next presidency.

The year 2018 appears to be a lifetime away over the course of which the option, at least as far as conventional wisdom goes, is between an Afghanistan that limps on or descends into chaos.

Yet, there is another possibility, however unlikely or remote it may appear at the moment: Afghanistan, with the help of its neighbours and regional and international powers, could stabilise and move towards a growing economy, internal security and institutional stability. While much has been made about the intentions and old agendas of the outside powers, it is also true that no side has forcefully vetoed the decisions Afghans have made for themselves.



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