KABUL, Afghanistan -- Several issues are at the top of Afghans' minds as they go to the polls Saturday. High among them is deteriorating security as the country undergoes its first democratic transition of power in history. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term in office. The most often mentioned issues include:
SECURITY: A spike in attacks ahead of the elections has highlighted the poor state of security in Afghanistan. While most people said it has hardened their determination to go to the polls, fear dominates their lives and the lives of their children. Stories abound of children whose artwork is seldom without helicopter gunships or soldiers with guns. Security has been turned over to the Afghan National Security Forces ahead of the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops at the end of this year. Many candidates say that improving security is the top concern.
CORRUPTION: According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, along with North Korea and Somalia. According to most Afghans, corruption seeps into every facet of their life. Errands as simple as paying bills often require bribes. The most immediate worry of many Afghans is that fraud will again mar polling results. The 2009 election was declared deeply flawed by local and international election monitors.
ECONOMY: Lack of jobs and widespread poverty has most Afghans wondering where billions of dollars in international aid that poured into Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban have gone. The Asian Development Bank said the Afghan government twice missed its revenue targets last year. Foreign aid contributes upward of 90 percent of the government's overall budget. But there is some good news with the Asian Development Bank revising Afghanistan's growth rate this year upward to 5.3 percent. Much of that growth is in the country's agricultural sector.
WOMEN: Afghan women have come a long way since the Taliban ruled the country and they were forced indoors and into the all-encompassing burqa (It should be noted, however, that most women still wear the burqa in rural areas where an overwhelmingly conservative culture prevails.) But today, girls are in school and women are in the workforce, with some holding seats in parliament. Still, many women activists worry that the government's determination to protect their rights is waning. They worry going forward that their gains might be sacrificed in favor of an agreement with the Taliban. They have been rallying behind women candidates, and look to the next president to move forward with legislation that enshrines their rights.
FUTURE U.S. ROLE: Karzai's deteriorating relations with Kabul's Western allies has Afghans worried that a further deterioration could leave them isolated once again. Karzai has refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, which is needed if a residual force of about 12,000 to 15,000 U.S. and NATO troops is to remain behind in Afghanistan next year. Every candidate has vowed to sign it, but Washington says the longer it takes to get the pact inked, the fewer troops it is likely to keep in the country. The billions of dollars in international aid that come to Afghanistan are also tied to the nation's relationship with the United States and other Western countries.