Kabul - A month out from the polls, the three frontrunners in Afghanistan’s presidential election have debated their policies on the future of the nation’s foreign relations.
Tuesday’s debate, aired live on Tolo TV, saw Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Doctor Abdullah Abdullah and Doctor Zalmai Rassoul discuss the impact of foreign relations on security, aid and the economy.
Moderator Mujahid Kakkar first asked the candidates if they accepted the Durand Line, the disputed 2,640km border separating Afghanistan from Pakistan.
Rassoul said the validity of the border — established by an 1893 memorandum of understanding — was not up to a single government to determine. Instead, its status must be addressed through consultation with the Afghan people.
Abdullah agreed, saying any decision on the Durand Line must come from the people and parliament.
Ahmadzai, however, said while Pakistan “does not and will not have the right to interfere in Afghanistan”, insecurity and insurgency, not the disputed border, were the nation’s first priority.
Bilateral Security Agreement
Afghans, including the three leading candidates, have repeatedly accused Pakistan of providing safe havens for the armed opposition.
“Pakistan is using the Afghan Taliban to reach its foreign policy goals," said Abdullah.
With regard to Afghanistan’s relations with the West and its role in foreign aid, all three candidates said they supported the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would stipulate guidelines for US forces remaining beyond the planned December international troop withdrawal or its alternative, a so-called "zero option".
In November, President Hamid Karzai shocked many at home and abroad after he refused to sign the BSA without securing specific assurances from Washington. Karzai’s demands that the US made serious efforts to support peace talks with the armed opposition and guarantee that they would not interfere with the April 5 ballot came after a Loya Jirga, grand assembly, unanimously approved the pact.
During the debate, the most direct support for the pact came from Ahmadzai, one of the agreement's lead negotiators, who said he would sign the BSA in his “first week in office".
Both he and Rassoul said a zero option was unlikely, with Rassoul describing a complete US withdrawal as "near impossible".
Washington had invested too much, both militarily and financially, in Afghanistan for it to be likely, he said.
Abdullah, however, who came second to Karzai in the 2009 ballot, said the incumbent's “unbalanced and emotional” actions only increased the likelihood of a zero option.
“The implementation of a zero option is increasing with each passing day," said Abdullah.
Karzai’s foreign policy
Abdullah also accused Karzai of making “personal and emotional” decisions which had not only hurt the nation’s standing in the world but also hindered relations with potential partner nations.
Ahmadzai, who headed the committee overseeing the transition to Afghan-led security, singled out Karzai’s relations with Islamabad.
“Hamid Karzai has made many visits to Pakistan but without results,” he said.
All three candidates said efforts must be made to strengthen Afghanistan’s ties with potential foreign partners, including Western states.
Ahmadzai said it would be impossible for Afghanistan, in its current economic state, to continue to support its 350,000-strong security forces without Western help.
“It is not possible to meet our current security expense without the help of the West.”
Ahmadzai said Afghanistan must look for help from all possible sources, including regional neighbours China and India.
Abdullah however, said regional support was not "a reasonable substitute for Western aid”.
Describing Western relations as in a “delicate” state, Abdullah said increased diplomacy would be required to attract foreign aid beyond 2014.
Rassoul, however, took a more positive stance on Kabul’s diplomacy.
“Next to freedom of speech, our largest achievement has been improvements in our relations with the rest of the world.”
With Karzai constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, the April 5 poll will mark the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in Afghanistan.