This week the people of Afghanistan are going to the polls to elect a new President now that the term of Hamid Karzai is finally up. In terms of the importance for the future of Afghanistan and the success of the ISAF mission, this election couldn't be more critical. And potentially it marks a turning point in the campaign against the insurgency.
Karzai was initially voted in by a council and not a general election of the populace. His second election in 2004, the first proper test of his popularity with voters, was mired in controversy and accusations of corruption and electoral fraud. A simlar story played out in 2009, to such an extent that his main opponent refused to compete in a run-off election, believing that the process was already inherently rigged against him.
This time things are a little different, not least because Karzai is ineligible to run again for the position, and because the country has had several years to work with outside assistance to prepare for a much more controlled and hopefully legitimate process. The two leading candidates who are now likely to enter a run off also represent a marked change from the Karzai years.
Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai both represent a breath of fresh air for Afghan politics. Karzai was always a more moderate president, one who had previously fought against the Taliban but without ever really moving too far away from some of his old political connections with it. Corruption and indecision has thrived under Karzai, much to the detriment of his nation.
Abdullah and Ahmadzai are from the opposite end of the scale.
Abdullah was previously a close confident of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the man that effectively ran the northern opposition to the Taliban government up until his assassination in 2001, the day before the 9/11 attacks. In all probability it would have been Massoud who would have become the first president, not Karzai, had he survived long enough.
Abdullah is well educated, a trained ophthalmologist, and served as Afghanistan's foreign minister from 2001 until his resignation in 2005. He was the main candidate running against Karzai back in 2009, and since that election has gone on to form a coalition opposing Karzai, particularly the corruption which his presidency has entailed, and his perceived softness when dealing with issues related to the Taliban.
Ahmadzai was Afghan born, but won a scholarship to study for a degree in the United States. Married to a Christian, he first earned a doctorate in Cultural Anthropology before going on to teach at many top institutions across the US and abroad. He ended up working for the World Bank and has draw very high praise for his work there, before taking up the position of finance minister in the first Karzai government.
In quite the turn around for an Afghan politician Ahmadzai refused a salary and worked for free up until 2005, when he took a job as the chancellor of Kabul University. His economic plans from those early years were highly praised at the time and he did much to kick start the nations finances, while also focusing on government transparency.
What we have then are two candidates who offer genuine hope for Afghanistan.
At the minute it appears that neither will achieve the majority to win outright, which means a run off will ensue. Such a race could be very tight as their support is split fairly evenly across the country. Most of Abdullahs support emanates from around Kabul and the north and east of the country, while Ahmadzai generates most of his from the border regions to the south and west (although these are general, not hard and fast observations).
Whoever wins, both seem committed to the future of Afghanistan and to seeing the country recover from years of endless fighting. Both have taken a strong stance against corruption at all levels and both are in favour of pursuing greater freedom and development for the Afghan people. It's entirely possible that no matter which candidate wins, the other will join their cabinet as a senior minister.
The question now is whether they can make their policies stick. The Karzai government has ultimately done much damage to Afghanistan in the long run. Political and economic reform is needed to regain the trust of the population and to start steering Afghanistan towards a brighter and better future. To facilitate this the security situation also still needs improving and the long struggle for peace is likely to continue for many more years still to come.
Despite these challenges though, Afghanistan does seem to have reached a tipping point. The government has survived long enough to gain a degree of legitimacy and the situation in the country is beginning to stabilise. The elections have so far gone off without too many hitches and at this stage seem to be remarkably free and fair for such a young democracy. This can only strengthen the belief of ordinary people that their voice has at least some weight.
It's a little too early to say anything with certainty but it does seem at this point that all the blood that has been shed, both by Afghans and ISAF forces, has meant something. That's probably little comfort to those affected, but it at least means that their sacrifice hasn't been in vain.
The challenge for the international community now is to not just walk away from Afghanistan and declare the job done. It is up on its feet and fighting for itself but it still needs assistance, primarily in security and finance. The UK and the US in particular have spent much in time, blood and treasure to help Afghanistan get this far. It is imperative that they do not suddenly become penny wise and pound foolish in a desperate attempt to distance themselves from their predecessors mistakes.
It would be a grave error to give up on the race when the finishing line is now is sight. And a betrayal of everything that has been asked of our armed forces over these long years.