- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2014

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said Thursday that Washington and Kabul must keep a close relationship even as U.S. troops prepare to exit the country after more than a decade of war.

Just days before a runoff vote to decide the presidential contest, Mr. Abdullah said the fact that his country is voting for a new leader demonstrates the evolution that already has occurred with the aid of the U.S., despite the challenges still facing Afghanistan.

“We have come more than half the way together,” Mr. Abdullah told a Washington audience at the Atlantic Council via Skype Thursday.

“Alongside the sacrifices the Afghans have made, the United States also has made a lot of sacrifices,” said the former Afghan foreign minister. “The best way to honor those sacrifices will be to sustain the achievements and continue the cooperation.”

Mr. Abdullah squares off against former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in Saturday’s runoff vote. In the initial balloting on April 5, Mr. Abdullah collected 45 percent of the votes, and Mr. Ahmadzai finished second, with 31.6 percent.

If elected, Mr. Abdullah said his top two priorities would be to bring about peace in Afghanistan and to stand up for the rights of Afghan citizens.

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Then, he would tackle poverty, corruption and unemployment by establishing regional economic integration and providing proper governance throughout Afghanistan.

President Obama has announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year, with a pending bilateral security agreement to be signed by the future Afghan president.

Mr. Abdullah sees those measures as an opportunity for future cooperation.

“By signing off the bilateral security agreement, that framework of cooperation will be in place for another ten years,” he said. “And it will be a fresh opportunity for Afghanistan to reset its relations with the international community.”

Although there have been accusations of election fraud and Taliban efforts to keep voters away from the voting booths, Mr. Abdullah said the Afghan people have recorded their highest voter turnout.

“That was very courageous of the Afghans,” he said. “As a whole, the people are much better aware of their rights and the people were ahead of their leaders in many cases.”

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When a transparent and fair election happens, Mr. Abdullah said it will send a message to the Afghan people and to terrorist groups.

“Legitimacy of the future Afghan government will send a different message to those who are fighting against us,” said Mr. Abdullah, who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt last week.

Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ahmadzai were candidates in Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential election.

The election marks the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Meghan Drake can be reached at mdrake@washingtontimes.com.

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