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Asia-Pacific

Afghan presidential election 2014 - the big issues

media Abdullah Abdullah supporters at a rally in Kabul Reuters/Omar Sobhani

Whoever wins Afghanistan's 2014 presidential election will have more problems to solve than the average president. One of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world, Afghanistan suffers ethnic rivalries and a violent insurgency as foreign troops prepare to leave. What will be on Afghans' mind when they go to the polls in April?

  • Poverty and the economy

Afghanistan ranks 175 out of 187 countries and territories on the UN's development index. Reliable unemployment figures are not available but underemployment affects most Afghans, although child labour is widespread.

Dossier: AfPak news and analysis

Some 36 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty and another 37 per cent are only a little better off. Only 21 per cent of the population over 15 is literate and 60 percent of children are malnourished, according to the government.

GDP has risen every year since 2001 to 15 billion euros but is largely dependent on aid and remittances from Afghans abroad.

Substantial mineral deposits remain for the most part unexploited due to the security situation and corruption.

Opium does not remain unexploited, however, Afghanistan supplying 85 per cent of the world's heroin and morphine, far more in amount and proportion than in 2001. About 14 per cent of the population are involved in its cultivation and trade.

According to the World Bank, 85 per cent of the Afghan budget comes from abroad and nearly half of all government money is spent on security.

Of 41 billion euros of aid between 2001 and 2011, 21 billion euros were spent on the police and army. The flow of aid is likely to slow after the departure of international combat troops, especially if the bilateral agreement with the US is not signed.

  • Corruption

A large part of aid is syphoned off into the pockets of officials and their friends due to Afghanistan's endemic corruption.

A UN-sponsored investigation found that half of all Afghans asked had paid a bribe to an official, ranging from desk-bound bureaucrats to police officers on the street, while 68 per cent believed that taking small amounts was justified because civil service salaries are so low.

Afghanistan tied with North Korea and Somalia as the most corrupt countries in the world in anti-graft campaigners Transparency International's corruption perceptions index in 2013.

The 2010-2013 Kabul bank scandal almost bankrupted the state and reached to its highest levels. President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood, and the late vice-president Mohammed Fahim were among insiders alleged to be spending millions on lavish living, secret loans to family and friends, Karzai's 2009 election campaign and unwise property investments in Dubai.

  • Insurgency

Thirteen years after being chased from power, the Taliban and their allies "remain resilient and capable of challenging US and international goals", according to the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.

Dossier: Pakistan General Election 2013

Civilian casualties increased 10 per cent in the first 11 months of 2013, mostly because of improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents but also as a result of fighting and drone attacks, and parts of the country are under Taliban control.

Insurgent activity reportedly rose in 2013 and is likely to intensify once international combat troops withdraw, posing a threat to government control of much of the country.

Moves towards proposed peace talks appeared to be making progress with a Taliban office opening in Qatar but faltered when the Taliban refused to deal with the Karzai government and Karzai objected to them calling it the "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", the name they gave Afghanistan when they were in power.

The armed forces and local police, who must take up the slack as international troops withdraw from combat, are unreliable, inadequately trained, prone to desertion and ethnically imbalanced, being dominated by former militamen from the Tajik-led Northern Alliance.

While carrying out military action, expecially in the north-east, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami has a political wing with members in parliament and provincial assemblies, one of whose members is standing in the presidential election with the rebel leader's declared support.

While many Afghans detest the Taliban, others are bitterly disillusioned with the record of the Karzai government and not hostile to much of their ideology.

Many MPs and other powerbrokers share the Taliban's views on Islam and politics and the position of women and could easily accomodate to power-sharing or aTaliban government.

  • Women

Afghanistan ranked 147 out of 148 countries UN Development Programme's gender inequality index (GII) in 2012.

Largely due to quotas, 27.6 per cent of parliamentary seats are held by women.

Only 5.8 per cent of adult women have had a secondary or higher education - compared to 34 per cent of men.

Oxfam has called the country "http://www.oxfam.org/en/campaigns/health-education/afghanistan-worst-place-world-give -birth">the worst place in the world to give birth" with 18,000 Afghan women dying in childbirth every year, six times more than the estimated number of civilians killed in the conflict over the same period.

Women's rights campaigners report widespread domestic violence, sometimes leading to mutilation or murder, and under-age arranged marriages.

After an international outcry, Karzai in February blocked a law that would have legalised stoning and flogging for adultery and prohibited family members from giving testimony against relations, a key requirement for action against domestic violence.

Activists fear that a deal with the Taliban, or simply a reduction in international scrutiny, could mean many of the advances made since 2001 could be reversed.

  • Warlords

"Armed strongmen ... sit in most key positions and dominate the parliament, the judiciary and the still-partly factionalised security forces as well as the country’s few functioning business sectors," writes Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network.

Warlords, who built ethnic-based or regional fiefdoms during the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban wars, received money from the US to fight the insurgents after 2001 and often invested it in opium production, militias and business.

Little wonder that the parliament, the Loya Jirga, passed an amnesty law for war crimes and human rights violations in 2010.

Six presidential election tickets have at least one alleged warlord on them.

Gul Agha Sherzai rejoices in the nickname "the Bulldozer" thanks to his record as a militia leader and later governor of Kandarhar and then Nangarhar provinces.

Ashraf Ghani once described his choice for vice-president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, as a "known killer".

Both Abdullah Abdullah's running mates have been accused of atrocities in the past, Mohammad Khan as a former member of Hekmatyar Hezb-e-Islami, and Mohammad Mohaqiq as a leader of the predominantly Hazara Hezb-e Wahdat party and military force.
 

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