As unpopular as the war in Afghanistan is, the April 5 presidential election is a moment the West and Afghans can be proud of. The Afghan security forces prevented chaos and turnout was about 60% with one-third of voters being women. The frontrunner, Abdullah Abdullah, wants to immediately sign an agreement to keep U.S. troops around.
The incredibleness of what’s been achieved can only be appreciated if you think about the obstacles Afghanistan faced.
It is a country at war since the 1980s, facing two invasions and ongoing Islamist insurgency backed by Pakistan and Iran. The Afghan Taliban alone numbers around 30,000. Illiteracy is sky high, even among soldiers. Corruption and poverty are rampant and the country could fall apart due to competing warlords and ethnic tensions.
Yet, despite this, 7 of 12 million eligible voters participated in the election, whereas only 4.5 million voted in 2009. That means the turnout was at 58%, about the same as in America’s 2012 presidential election. It would have been even higher if the government hadn’t run out of ballots, long lines didn’t prevent some from voting and 14% of polling stations weren’t closed in the more restive areas.
One in three voters were females and a record number of women were running for office, including two for Vice President.
The Taliban knew how high the stakes were and mustered every ounce of strength it could, but the 400,000 members of the Afghan police and national army kept them at bay. The Taliban claimed that it carried out over 1,000 attacks, but the Afghan government counted only 140 attacks, a miniscule number considering the millions of available targets.
This is reflective of the huge strides that the Afghans have made in taking care of their own country. Michael O’Hanlon writes that 95% of all operations are done by the Afghans and they take 95% of all casualties. Foreign forces now account for just 15% of coalition manpower. The areas where security has declined as foreign forces drew down only encompass about 10% of the total population.
His analysis is supported by freelance war correspondent Nolan Peterson, who Clarion Project interviewed last month. He confidently predicted, “The Taliban is not coming back.”
Another piece of good news is the departure of President Hamid Karzai. He is a corrupt, mentally unbalanced back-stabber who, although he owes his life to U.S. troops, has threatened to ally with the Taliban, stokes anti-American sentiment and works with Iran. He is the chief reason that a Status of Forces Agreement has not been signed with the U.S., giving hope to our enemies that foreign forces will completely depart by the end of the year.
Yet, all eight presidential candidates said they will sign the Status of Forces Agreement. If a significant portion of the Afghan population agreed with Karzai, at least one candidate would try to court those voters. Instead, even the candidate closest to Karzai—former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul—is on the other side.
We don’t yet know who won the election or if fraud will deny voters’ their real choice, but the frontrunner is Abdullah Abdullah. He is a rival of Karzai’s who lost to him in the fraud-ridden 2009 election. He wants to sign a deal with the U.S. within one month of becoming president. He has claimed victory with over 50% of the vote. If true, that means there will not be a run-off election.
It will be remarkable if Abdullah wins (especially with over half the vote) because that will mean that significant cross-ethnic voting occurred. He belongs to the Tajik minority, which comprise about 27% of the population. On the other hand, 42% is Pashtun. Ethnicity-based bloc voting is one of the most formidable obstacles facing Afghanistan and many other countries.
The candidate running behind Abdullah is Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun. He is a former finance minister who is overseeing the Afghanis’ replacement of NATO security duties. He won 3% in the 2009 presidential election.
Democracy is a never-ending road. Democratic societies are supposed to mature with time. Those further down that road will always look at those behind with dissatisfaction, but problems are not proof of failure. The Afghans and their NATO allies should be proud of their accomplishments and it should be broadcasted far and wide.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.