- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When the presidential campaign began in Afghanistan several months ago all bets were on for an easy re-election of President Hamid Karzai. After the first round of voting the result is a competitive and a very close election.

In spite of accusations of fraud that may spoil the elections, this is actually a very good sign for a future of democracy in the country.

Another hopeful sign is the extraordinary quality and character of the incumbent’s main challenger, the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. It is not surprising that Mr. Abdullah has fired up the Afghan electorate. Before the election, I accidentally ran into him one day at the gravesite of his dear deceased friend, commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was silent, alone and deep in prayer. Moved by his sincerity, I asked to interview him regarding the upcoming elections.

I have known him personally for 10 years and I am familiar with his high level of intelligence and his commitment to the Afghan people. In his career he dedicated himself first to Afghan public health as a practicing doctor, and then took on the enormous task to improving the health of the Afghan body politic by working as a companion in the resistance movement to Mr. Massoud. He distinguished himself as foreign minister for incumbent Mr. Karzai, and is now the leading opposition candidate for president.

This former colleague of Mr. Massoud is a man who brings together the modern and the traditional in Afghanistan. He also embodies, literally, the ethnic diversity of Afghanistan. He is a Tajik on his mother’s side and a Pashtun from Kandahar from his father’s.

His vision for his people is to promote a mentality of Afghan citizenship first and foremost and to transcend ethnic barriers. “Afghans have to be treated equally; justice is the basis for national unity in this country,” he told me just before he declared himself candidate for the presidency. “Hopefully, this will be initiated for our people through construction and development programs and institution building.”

Mr. Abdullah is a realist. He recognizes that Afghanistan needs a long-term commitment from the international community, but this must be a partnership that respects Afghan traditions. He knows that if modernity is something seen as purely Western, it will face resistance there. The Afghan people do not want a culture invasion. “The Afghans want our own people to be in charge, but this depends how much progress is made.”

Unfortunately, the current government has not made maximum use of the presence of international forces to facilitate a withdrawal date. Yet, with a good plan for the future, that time could be shortened. “The problem for the international community is that this government is not doing its own job. They are losing the people,” he said.

Mr. Abdullah also expressed the view that the term “moderate” Taliban is a contradictory notion. The door should be opened to clearheaded reconciliation with those who are not motivated by Islamic extremism. “Afghans do not want a return of the Taliban,” he said.

Recognition of age-old traditions requires respect of local power. Mr. Abdullah wants to give more authority to the provinces, and adopt a parliamentary system. Trying to impose a highly centralized system has already failed.

The necessary respect for tradition includes a place for women in a modernizing and democratic Afghanistan, but he does not want the evolution of women’s rights to provoke a clash of culture.

Mr. Abdullah has run a superb campaign based on his intimate sense of the Afghan people, their traditions and their disappointments and frustrations. If a runoff is held and he does not win in a clear, clean tally of valid votes, he will concede with his usual elegance, and continue to work on constructive projects for the good of his people.

But if Mr. Abdullah wins the presidency, Mr. Karzai should also concede with elegance, for the sake of all the Afghans. What better gift to give to one’s people than a peaceful and gracious transition?

Those who know how to leave power behind for the sake of the greater good are those who will be celebrated with the greatest honor and affection by future generations.

Patricia Lalonde is the chairman of Mobilization for Elected Women in Afghanistan, a French nongovernmental organization that helps rebuild schools in Afghanistan.

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