The stakes are huge. If a warlord or corrupt politician wins the presidency, aid will be wasted and Afghanistan’s economy — still dependent on billions in annual foreign aid, such as that pledged during Sunday’s donor conference in Tokyo — will regress. Improvements in citizens’ quality of life, such as dramatic increases in life expectancy, school enrollment and cell phone availability, are likely to be squandered. Worse, insurgents will have a rallying cry likely to resonate with millions of disaffected Afghans. Civil war could resume and, with it, control over large parts of the country could be lost to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But if the next Afghan president can be an even moderately serious reformer, the most likely outcome will not be pretty but will be better than defeat. Plenty of good leaders are up to the challenge. Possible candidates include Hanif Atmar, a former minister of both education and the interior who recently helped start a multi-ethnic political reform movement; economic wizard Ashraf Ghani; and the former foreign minister and presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah. Should such a reformer prevail, the Kabul government will continue its struggle to contain the insurgency in rural locales while absorbing the occasional body blow in populated areas. But it will probably be able to hold onto major cities and transportation routes and keep the nation’s security forces intact. With the right mix of vice presidents and cabinet leaders, and a sound approach to any peace talks with insurgents, it would also be likely to defuse threats of civil war along ethnic lines.