Afghan presidential hopefuls in a televised debate ahead of the April vote have pledged to tackle widespread corruption and hold peace talks with the Taliban, also laying out their respective views on women's rights.
During the first of two presidential debates this weekend sponsored jointly by state broadcaster RTA and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul, former Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said corruption "has hit Afghanistan's reputation hard, both nationally and internationally."
Wardak added that his "first step" as president would be to tackle graft.
The anticorruption theme was echoed by another candidate, former Governor Gul Agha Sherzai. "We need to emphasize industrialization and better utilize our economic resources," Sherzai said.
Former lawmaker Daud Sultanzoi said he would improve the rule of law in order to attract foreign and domestic investment.
Wardak said the country needs to prioritize agriculture and the development of mineral resources.
Islamist leader Qutbuddin Hilal said, "We need to rebuild our industries. We need to build new dams."
Sultanzoi vowed to negotiate with the Taliban in order to improve the country's security, adding that the "distance between the people and the government is a major factor of instability."
Both Sherzai and Islamist candidate Qutbuddin Hilal said a neutral shura, or council, would be needed to conduct the peace process.
"We need a good mechanism for peace talks with Taliban in Afghanistan and to continue diplomatic efforts with Pakistan in this regard," Sherzai said. "I will talk to the Afghan Taliban inside Afghanistan, for example, in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and other parts of the country. And I will talk to Pakistan in a friendly manner, keeping Afghanistan's interests in mind. I will bring peace, God willing."
Four of the 11 candidates in Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential election were participating in the first of the two weekend televised debates: Islamist leader Hilal; ex-Defense Minister Wardak; former Nangarhar Province Governor Sherzai; and Sultanzoi, a former member of parliament from Ghazni Province.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah had been invited to attend, as well, but eventually declined.
PHOTO GALLERY: Afghan electoral authorities announced a final list of 11 candidates to appear on the ballot for the country's April 5 presidential election:
Abdullah Abdullah (center)
Vice-presidential running mates: Mohammad Khan (Pashtun) (left in photo), Mohammad Mohaqeq (Hazara) (right in photo)
Abdullah (born in 1960) is a former foreign minister and qualified eye surgeon. He finished second behind President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 presidential election, with around 30 percent of the vote.
The Jamiat-e Islami and Hezb-e Islami were deadly rivals during Afghanistan's civil war, but that did not prevent Jamiat-e Islami member Abdullah from adding Hezb-e Islami associate Khan to his ticket.
Vice-presidential running mates: General Abdul Rashid Dostum (ethnic Uzbek), Sarwar Danish (Hazara)
Ghani (born in 1949) is a former finance minister and World Bank official who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology.
The Western-educated technocrat fared poorly in the 2009 election, coming in fourth place with only three percent of the vote
He raised eyebrows after partnering up with Dostum, a notorious former warlord who has been implicated in numerous human rights violations.
Vice-presidential running mates: Wahidullah Shahrani (ethnic Uzbek) and Ibrahim Qasemi (Hazara)
Qayum Karzai (born in 1957), outgoing President Hamid Karzai's older brother, is a prominent technocrat.
He is also a businessman and former lawmaker. Interestingly, Qayum has not received the backing of his brother.
Qayum has decided to run with Wahidullah Shahrani, an ethnic Uzbek who has served as minister of mines, and Ibrahim Qasemi, a Hazara and former member of parliament.
Vice-presidential running mates: Ahmad Zia Masud (ethnic Tajik) and Habiba Sarabi (Hazara)
Rasul (born in 1944), a former foreign minister, is seen by many as the president’s favored candidate.
He hails from the powerful Mohammadzai tribe in the country's south that has ruled Afghanistan for most of the past century.
Rasul is a soft-spoken man who has kept a low profile during his time as a presidential adviser and minister.
Prince Mohammad Nader Naim
Vice-presidential running mates: Taj Mohammad Akbar (Tajik) and Azizullah Puya (Pashtun)
Naim is the grandson of former King Zaher Shah, who was ousted from power in 1973 and lived in Rome until he returned to Afghanistan in 2002.
Naim, who returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after two decades in exile, was a close aide to the former monarch, who died in Kabul in 2007.
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (center)
Vice-presidential running mates: Ismail Khan (ethnic Tajik) (left in photo) and Abdul Wahab Erfan (ethnic Uzbek) (right in photo)
Sayyaf (born in 1946) is an influential lawmaker from Kabul who is one of the most controversial and conservative of the candidates.
He is an Egyptian-trained cleric who is credited with bringing leading Al-Qaeda figures -- including former leader Osama bin Laden -- to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Sayyaf’s right-hand man, Khan, is the former energy and water minister. Khan, a former Tajik warlord from Herat Province, is referred to as the emir (or king) of western Afghanistan.
Gul Agha Shirzai
Vice-presidential running mates: Sayed Hossain Alemi Balkhi (Hazara) and Mohammad Hashem Zare (ethnic Uzbek)
Shirzai (born in 1955) is a former governor of both the Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces. His nickname is "The Bulldozer," reflecting his hard-hitting style and reputation for getting things done.
During his time as governor of Nangarhar, the former warlord was praised for completing a series of daunting infrastructure projects in record time, eradicating opium production, and curbing militant activity in the province.
But his record was tarnished by concerns from the international community that he was using his position of power to accumulate personal wealth. He is accused by his opponents of intimidation and extortion.
Abdul Rahim Wardak
Vice-presidential running mates: Shah Abdul Ahad Afzali (ethnic Tajik) and Sayed Hussain Anwari (Hazara)
Wardak (born in 1940) is a former minister of defense who most recently served as a security adviser to the president.
The U.S.-educated Wardak played a key role in rebuilding the Afghanistan National Army. But he was sacked after a no-confidence vote by parliament in 2012 over alleged security failures.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Wardak was the leader of one of the Islamist mujahedin groups fighting the Afghan communist regime and its Soviet backers.
Hedayat Amin Arsala
Vice-presidential running mates: General Khudaidad (Hazara) and Safia Seddiqi (Pashtun)
Arsala is a prominent politician and former finance minister who was educated in the United States.
Arsala (born in 1942), an economist by trade, has teamed up with General Khudaidad, a former minister of counternarcotics. Arsala's other running mate is Safia Seddiqi, a dual Afghan-Canadian citizen who hails from the eastern province of Nangarhar.
Vice-presidential running mates: Enayatullah Enayat (ethnic Uzbek) and Muhammad Ali Nabizada (ethnic Tajik)
Helal is a prominent member of the Hezb-e Islami faction led by notorious jihadist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has been blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist.
The Hezb-e Islami, currently fighting against international and Afghan security forces, has been accused of some of the worst human-rights abuses that occurred during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s.
Vice-presidential running mates: Farid Ahmad Fazli (ethnic Tajik), Kazemia Mohaqeq (Hazara)
Sultanzoi is a former member of parliament from volatile Ghazni Province. The 60-year-old is a technocrat and seen as a reformer. He has been highly critical of President Karzai and the presence of former warlords in the government. Sultanzoi was the head of the Economics Committee in the lower house of parliament before he resigned to run for the presidency.
He is a former United Airlines and Ariana Afghan Airline pilot. Sultanzoi, who has relinquished his German citizenship, has adopted two pens as his election symbol.
The four candidates present also laid out their respective views on women's rights in their socially and religiously conservative country.
Hilal said Islam gave women many rights and "we need to ensure their rights are within the boundaries of Islamic Shari'a law."
Sherzai said, "We need to ensure that women rights are protected," adding that he would work with religious scholars.
Wardak said the goal is for all men and women of Afghanistan to enjoy all the rights given to them by "our religion, constitution, and the global conventions we have signed."
And Sultanzoi said, "The rule of law will ensure that human rights are respected."
"Afghanistan was divided at the Bonn [Conference] among some groups like the spoils of war, and the jihad of Afghanistan and its people was taken hostage," Sultanzoi said. "We will create a vision in this country that will be innovative and an effective government with a clear vision. We are at the service of the people of Afghanistan, and we want to save them from the current situation and from those who have already served [in government]."
The debates are being conducted in both of Afghanistan's official languages, Dari and Pashtu.
Those invited to appear in the February 16 broadcast are former Foreign Minister Zalmail Rasul; former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani; former presidential adviser Hedayat Amin Arsala; President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Qayum Karzai; Prince Mohammad Nader Naim, the grandson of the late King Zaher Shah; and the Salafist politician and former mujahedin commander Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.
The first of a possible two rounds of the election is slated for April 5.
With contributions by RFE/RL