Preliminary results in Afghanistan's presidential elections are scheduled to be released today, but the country is still a long way from naming a new head of state in its first democratic transition of power.
Neither of the front-running candidate — former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and one-time finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai — look likely to net the 50 percent of the vote required for all out victory, meaning that a runoff will be held after final results are announced.
Both candidates have said they don’t want to cut a deal and will contest the second round.
The process could take months.
Final results from the current round of voting are not expected until mid-May. Runoff polls will be held 15 days later, and if they follow a similar timescale, a successor to outgoing president Hamid Karzai may not be confirmed until as late as July.
Voting in Afghanistan’s presidential election opened on the morning of April 5 as crowds flocked to the polls to choose a successor to Hamid Karzai.
Whichever candidate does win, however will find themselves with a monumental, and complex set of issues to deal with.
The most pressing need for Afghanistan's next president will undoubtedly be the security situation.
More than 12 years after it overthrew the hard line Islamic Taliban regime, a US-led international military coalition is scheduled to hand over control of the country's security to local security forces by the end of 2014.
It is no small task. And many doubt the ability of Afghan forces to control the country once international troops have departed.
There was a 23 percent rise in civilian casualties — mostly at the hands of Islamic insurgents — in the first half of 2013 in comparison to the previous year, as local forces began to take over, according to the United Nations.
Meanwhile, 400 members of the Afghan security forces died each month during 2013's “fighting season,” while attrition rates reached 50 percent in some units, according to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2014.
The run up to the elections has seen many high profile incidents too, such as the fatal shooting of three doctors in Kabul by an Afghan security guard and the deaths of two journalists in separate incidents (one killed along with his family).
And there is no shortage of pessimistic takes on the situation.
A US National Intelligence assessment estimate from the end of last year predicted that if all international forces left Afghanistan by the end of the year, then Kabul would lose control over much of the country, which would then spiral into a patchwork of areas governed by the Taliban and tribal warlords.
There is, however, a proposed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) detailing limited international military presence to support Afghanistan’s security forces after the main withdrawal, alongside billions in aid.
Karzai has refused to sign it, although Ahmadzai and Abdullah both back it.
Nevertheless, the lengthy elections process means that a significant period of uncertainty remains, while the withdrawal deadline is fast approaching.
The BSA is also in the interests of the US and other members of the coalition, who will have little desire to see Afghanistan collapse into ungoverned world for anti-Western extremist groups after such a huge investment in time, money and manpower.
Nevertheless, the National Intelligence estimate suggested that even with continued support, much or all of the gains made by coalition forces since 2010 were likely to be eroded by 2017.
Security will be the priority for Afghanistan's next administration, but there are many others.
Items most in need for development includes everything from roads and schools to economic and political infrastructure.
This will require foreign assistance. Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations on earth, and almost entirely dependent on aid; it is expected to pay just 20 percent of its own budget this year.
The next president will have to maintain and foster links and good relations with its neighbors and the West, Gayle Lemmon senior fellow for women and foreign policy with the Council on Foreign Relations told VICE News.
“It’s about how they keep donors happy so that enough money comes in to actually fund the government,” she said.
The key to doing so is entering into intelligent, mutually beneficial alliances and communicating closely.
"I think being a good partner is at the heart of this entire conversation and that goes for both sides. [They need to understand] where the other comes from, the constraints that they face and why doing this together is in each others' shared interests,” she said.
To maintain positive relationships, however, Afghanistan's next leader will have to crack down on corruption to help international partners persuade reluctant electorate back home that their tax dollars are being well spent.
Billions in aid is being channeled directly to the Afghan government, but according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2013,
Afghanistan is one of the three most corrupt countries in the world. A dubious honor it shared with Somalia and North Korea.
However, if properly managed, the country also has significant potential.
Afghanistan has massive mineral reserves — including copper iron, gold and industrial metals, as well as oil and gas which could help lift it out of poverty.
However, not everyone is confident in the country’s management abilities. State Department reports obtained by the Washington Times show that some US officials see Afghan cabinet ministries as unequipped to deal with the challenges they face on their own.
Here again though, Afghanistan’s strategically important position and raw potential means that it will be in the international community’s best interests to help it grow and develop. A stable Afghanistan will be good for the entire region.
And the election process so far suggests that the Afghan people are keen to move forward too.
Moving Toward Progress
Seven million out of the 12 million Afghans eligible to vote took part, up 3 million from 2009.
Despite a number of allegations of fraud, reports of ballot paper shortages and some sporadic violence, the international community has remained positive.
US President Barack Obama, commended the high turnout in a statement adding that it was "in keeping with the spirited and positive debate among candidates and their supporters in the run-up to the election.”
Lemmon adds that the country’s young population (two thirds of Afghans are under 25) are keen to drive growth and development in a global environment, if proper governance allows.
“There is a young generation which is desperate for something better…These are people who really only remember an international presence in the country and they have a desire to be connected to the world and to shape their own future," she said. "Whether or not they have a chance to do that is the open question.”