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As Taliban threat wanes, next Afghan president faces big problems

KABUL — As Afghans wait for the results from this weekend's presidential election, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Taliban — which failed to undermine the vote — no longer represents an existential threat to the country's government.

But that is of little solace to the millions of Afghans who may face a graver enemy in the government itself — a bundle of inept and corruption-plagued institutions whose actions could threaten the gains of the past decade.

About 7 million voters turned out Saturday, a showing some Afghans read as a repudiation of the Taliban and others saw as a sign of the electorate's desperation to reform a host of public institutions.

The next president, who will be either former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah or former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, will inherit those institutions. On Sunday, both campaigns frantically tried to assess the election outcome, reporting dozens of cases of voting fraud to the country's election commission. The official results won't be released until early July.

Neither candidate campaigned primarily on his ability to suppress the insurgency. Both found that the electorate had more pressing worries.

"I'm not concerned about the insurgency. The security forces are capable of dealing with it," said Yama Torabi, head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan watchdog organization. "But I am concerned about corruption and its impact on the economy."

Much of the international community still sees Afghanistan through the lens of the ongoing counterterrorism mission, targeting Taliban insurgents who move freely in parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan. The threat from the Taliban is hardly over; hundreds of Afghans continue to be killed each month.

Many considered the elections to be a litmus test of the Taliban's relevance. If its fighters succeeded in their plan to disrupt the Afghan electoral process, it would say something about the insurgents' clout — if not their capacity to conduct attacks, then their ability to instill fear.

Saturday's vote was marred by hundreds of small-scale Taliban attacks, and more than 40 people were killed. But it would have taken much more than that to derail the elections. And, thanks to the growing strength of the Afghan security forces, the Taliban does not appear to have the capability to retake major urban centers.

The other threats to Afghanistan — the fragility of its economy and institutions — stand a better chance at destabilizing the country and throwing the U.S. investment here into a tailspin.

For example, it appears increasingly likely that the government will be financially blacklisted by next week for failing to pass an anti-money laundering law, a designation that would hinder Afghanistan's ability to do business with much of the world.

The Financial Action Task Force, an international regulatory body, had pledged to blacklist Afghanistan if it hadn't made progress on a list of International Monetary Fund requirements issued in 2001 to minimize the risks of money laundering and terrorist financing. Afghanistan's central bank crafted the legislation this year, but it was watered down and then got caught up in political gridlock.

"This law should have been approved and implemented 10 years ago, but Afghan officials were busy laundering money," said Abbas Ibrahimzada, a parliamentarian from central Balkh province.

The country also faces a growing budget shortfall that some Afghan officials say will soon preclude them from paying public-sector salaries.

"The biggest concern is not the security situation — the Afghans have that mostly under control — but the political institutions," said one U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

In 2002, after the U.S. invasion and the toppling of the Taliban regime, Americans looked for an Afghan president who was committed to fighting transnational terrorism. In 2014, many Afghans are more interested in a leader who can find a way to rescue the economy and minimize corruption.

Some Western officials read those shifting priorities as a natural part of Afghanistan's transition. But Afghans say that minimizes the enormity of the economic and governance problems, which are not unrelated to the country's ability to keep the insurgency at bay.

As Western troops depart and foreign assistance slows, the Afghan government will shoulder a larger responsibility for paying its soldiers and police — along with the teachers, doctors and engineers who are paid by foreign donors. But right now, it's unclear where that money will come from. Already, Afghan police are often paid weeks late. Many worry that further problems could lead to mass desertion.

In spite of efforts by the U.S. government and its allies to increase the country's revenue stream, there have been few successes. Customs duties remain the only significant source of Afghan government funds, but that income is reduced by corruption. Efforts to monetize the country's mineral resources have yielded little. Much of that wealth is extracted in untaxed, illicit mines.

Now, Afghanistan is left with a vast government apparatus — 17 ministries and thousands of public-sector employees — but little way to fund it. Its next president will have to persuade an increasingly disillusioned international community to keep billions flowing to Kabul as reforms are undertaken. The president will have to upend a system of institutionalized corruption that has benefited members of both candidates' campaign teams.

For years, much of the international community overlooked the Afghan government's systemic weaknesses in order to focus on the security situation. The U.S. government spent billions of dollars on economic development projects, but many were criticized as wasteful and ineffective. Many Afghan ministries lacked the capacity to sustain gains.

Both Ghani and Abdullah have promised to improve the economy. Voters will be watching to see if they can deliver.

"We don't worry about security. We worry about not having a home," said Mir Ahmad, who lives at a sprawling camp for displaced people in Kabul.

Like thousands of others, Ahmad fled restive Helmand province seven years ago. Back then, security was his family's largest concern. But now, in the relative safety of Kabul, he doesn't worry about a Taliban attack or a U.S. bombardment. He complains instead about living in a one-room hut with a plastic tarp for a roof.

"Where is the government?" he asked. "Some people are getting rich, but we are here, waiting."

Washington Post correspondent Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report from Kabul.
 

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