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Afghan presidential hopefuls take to TV

Kabul - As the nation's voters continue to familiarise themselves with the candidates, several of the leading figures in Afghanistan's third presidential polls engaged in their first debate.

Tuesday's debate, aired live on Tolo TV, the nation's largest private broadcaster, saw front-runners Doctor Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Doctor Abdullah Abdullah and Doctor Zalmai Rassoul, gather with Abdul Qayoum Karzai and Abdul Rahim Wardak to discuss issues of security and domestic policy.

Though the five candidates, out of a total 11, made reference to good governance, the economy and the strength of the Afghan National Security Forces in their answers, the uncertain fate of a Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington was one of the first questions posed by moderator Mujahid Kakkar.

Each of the candidates, including, Qayoum Karzai, elder brother to Hamid Karzai, the incumbent who is currently at loggerheads with the US over the pact, were in support of signing the BSA.

Ashraf Ghani, a lead negotiator of the Bilateral Security Agreement - which will stipulate the guidelines for any US forces remaining beyond the planned December international troop withdrawal - said the signing of the agreement was a necessity for the country.

Ahmadzai reminded the audience that maintaining the nation's 350,000-strong security forces was reliant on the $56m annual sum for assistance and training the agreement provides for.

"The constitution has made it clear that the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and I am fully willing to take on that role on my first day in office", Ahmadzai said.

Abdullah, who has become a leading political opposition figure in the years since he placed second in the 2009 polls, said "peace is not a mere technical matter. Elections, enforcing the law and good governance all affect [it]."

Rassoul echoed this statement when he said the rule of law must be equally applied to all Afghans.

Of the BSA, the former foreign minister who is believed to have the support of the incumbent, said the agreement has been approved on all fronts. This approval, said Rassoul, included a near unanimous endorsement at the Loya Jirga, grand assembly, convened by Karzai in November.

Rassoul also stated that he personally helped insure all aspects of the pact were to the benefit of the Afghan nation.

When asked whether the Taliban are the enemy of the Afghan people, each of the candidates chose to avoid headline-making soundbites and opted instead for a more nuanced approach to the definitions of Taliban and terrorist.

Seemingly a straight-forward political question, the matter of how the candidates view the Taliban will surely be compared to the incumbent, who has earned constant criticism from the Afghan people for referring to the Taliban as "brothers" for several years now.

Abdullah, who had served as spokesman for Ahmad Shah Massood - the Tajik jihadi commander who led the fight against the Taliban in the 1990s - set the tone by separating those who claim to be Taliban into two camps.

"[Our] enemies are those who ruin their own nation for the benefit of others", Abdullah said echoing the commonly held belief that many in Afghanistan’s largest armed opposition group are operating under the guidance of Pakistan and Arab nations.

"Those who have joined the opposition for other reasons must be integrated into the peace process", Abdullah went on to say.

In his response, Ahmadzai referenced the grievances - lack of basic necessities, bad governance and land grabs - that have lead some to pick up arms against the government.

"The group that was forced [to arm themselves] by shortcomings, we will negotiate with them. As for those that work against the benefit of Afghanistan, we will never accept them."

As the two front-runners, the possibility of Ahmadzai and Abdullah engaging in negotiations with any faction of the Taliban are very real, both candidates' political affiliations may serve as major roadblocks to direct talks.

For Abdullah, it is his long-standing relationship with Massood - who was killed by Arab suicide bombers on September 9, 2001, - that may keep the Taliban from engaging in talks with the ethnic Kandahari's administration.

Unlike Abdullah, however, Ahmadzai's connection to a historic enemy of the Taliban is much more recent.

In October, Ahmadzai named Abdul Rashid Dostum, the powerful Uzbek commander accused of the November 2001 mass killing of hundreds of surrendered Taliban prisoners, as one of his two Vice Presidents.

The reaction at home and in the diaspora was immediate — shock and confusion.

The Taliban too, have not forgotten the war crimes of which Dostum has been accused.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, a source close to the dozen Taliban who had assembled in Doha for peace talks, said "the Taliban hate Dostum. If they ever come back to power, the first person they would hang is Dostum."

Wardak - who was dismissed from his post as minister of defence by an August 2012 vote of no-confidence after being accused of a weak response to cross-border rocket attacks from neighbouring Pakistan - said that Kabul also had a large role to play in creating peace.

"The government can only earn the people's support if it can provide them with their basic needs."

For Ahmadzai, the April 5 polls are a "giant moment in our history, as the first peaceful, democratic transfer of political power" that empower the very people who have felt historically disenfranchised.

"Hundreds of farmers, women and youth will take responsibility for an election they believe in."

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