Afghanistan: The Real Exit Strategy - Free and Fair Elections

The US sent 4,000 marines to up the anti in Southern Afghanistan and snuff out the stronghold of the Taliban. Unfortunately, this influx of soldiers turned an already bloody war into one where violence has escalated to unprecedented heights. This movement is now making the country much more volatile in a time when the Afghans actually need some semblance of calm.

On August 20th, Afghans will be heading to the polls to hopefully elect a new President. The current one is noticeably untouched by the increased hostilities. Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has left the war management, and most everything else I might add, to the outsiders and is instead wheeling and dealing with warlords and drug dealers promising them all kinds of favors as well as positions in his government if they support him.

Perhaps this behavior was prudent in the past but today and in light of waning support, Karzai should start charting more prudent waters. The days of robber-baron capitalism must come to an end.

Karzai is deeply unpopular. His approval rating has dropped 60% since he's taken office. Afghans are tired of the corruption and lack of leadership. To no ones surprise, they loath all these warlords who quite frankly belong in the Hague not the cabinet.

Despite pleas by his people, Karzai continues to do little more than encourage corruption and thievery. Mohammad Naeem Dindar, Head of Audit Department in the Ministry of Finance, recently acknowledged that $80 billion of the national revenue was lost or squandered due to mismanagement and corruption.

In his quest for re-election, Karzai continues to demonstrate he has little, if any, intention to improve peoples lives in Afghanistan. Rather than work on policy and rural development projects, he is again busy working with thugs.

One of his new picks for Vice President is a notorious mujahedeen fighter and warlord, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who is known to be involved in widespread kidnappings, weapons smuggling and the drug trade. So much for the new anti-narcotics plan produced by Ambassador Holbrook, it has already been undermined.

Karzai also recently brought back the infamous Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum who most Afghans are petrified to even speak about. Dostum is known for committing mass atrocities during the Afghan civil war.

When I was in Kabul last year, he kidnapped, terrorized and brutally thrashed a former associate and his son Word was that the man wanted to start his own business. They ended up in the hospital fighting for their lives while Dostum went back in his mysterious ministry post.

More recently, Karzai shocked everyone by pardoning five drug traffickers who had been convicted by a U.S. Funded criminal drug court. The five had family members working for Karzai's political campaign. Surprise waned, disappointment took over.

All of this on top of Karzai's independent approval of the 'women's rape law' which revokes the constitutional provisions that women are equal or actually have rights. Although this law was revisited as promised the United Nations reports that women are still required to submit to sexual intercourse according to their husband's desires. Apparently their desires are of no concern.

While the West is pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan, it continues to ignore that the only beneficiaries are government ministers, warlords and heroin traffickers many of whom provide financing for the Taliban. From land to outright cash, they seem to be the only Afghans with any assets - massive mansions with personal militias and large bank accounts -- in one of the world's poorest countries while the people struggle and children starve.

The international community itself seems to be permitting this corruption instead of stepping in, taking away the money and halting it. It appears to have accepted a tainted election instead of clearly stating that there is a no tolerance policy for this behavior and demanding a free and fair election.

It is also quite astonishing that after five years of promises to bring reconciliation and development while failing miserably to do either that foreigners in particular are still predicting Hamid Karzai will have no competition and win. In reality there other candidates, 41 at last count, which are at a substantial disadvantage because internationals and, more importantly US money is supporting the current incumbent who can then in turn make all kinds of questionable promises to others.

Thus, the cry is again and again, "Well if not Karzai, then who?" There are possibilities and it is time for Afghans to rise up, vote and pick an alternative to the status quo and as long as the international community is there they should create a safe space for this to happen. Standing up for change is in Afghanistan's interest and if anyone can make it happen, Afghans most certainly can.

A few alternatives to Karzai are former foreign minister Abdulla Abdulla and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.

Abdulla is an ophthalmologist trained in Kabul. Despite his knowingly conservative roots, he has served with the Northern Alliance as a close associate to Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Massoud. Abdulla is an admirable diplomat and Afghans can be sure he knows a thing or two about at least dealing with the international occupation that entrenches upon their ground.

Ghani who also was a first advisor to Karzai, is much more progressive and has demonstrated he can make change. He won the title as Best Finance Minister of Asia because he was actually able to reform the customs offices and collect revenues for the government not just the coffers of the warlords and drug runners. After resigning from the government he served as chancellor of Kabul University and founded the Institute for State Effectiveness. He has worked much of his life on development and poverty alleviation all of which could highly benefit Afghanistan.

It is difficult to get information on the other candidates; something the international community should also work to change. No one really knows if one of them can actually lead the country to a better place.

Either way, it would behoove everyone to ensure that there is minimal fraud, all candidates get equal access and support, and that the international community themselves are observers instead of interventionist so obviously choosing one candidate over another. Without clear legitimacy and voter trust in a just outcome, the international community may be saddled with an Iranian-style revolt which would at this stage be disastrous for everyone.

Afghans deserve to decide who will represent them. They have the right to make a change. If that right is inhibited by international shortcomings or Karzai's definition of free enterprise for gangsters only, Afghanistan my just return to the civil wars of the past instead of what the Afghan people really want - a peaceful and prosperous future.