This weekend’s Afghan elections were a happy occasion for a country that has had few such moments of late. Recent months have seen increasing aggression from the Taliban and growing violence in Kabul, the once relatively secure capital. But for a few days this weekend, violence was sparse, the Taliban’s threats proved empty, and most Afghans were free to make it to their polling places.
Millions of them voted, and though official counts are weeks away, fraud doesn’t appear to have been widespread. More encouraging: All of the top candidates have rejected Hamid Karzai’s cheap anti-Americanism and eagerly pledged to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S.
Even Karzai’s chosen successor endorsed the idea — and yet he appears to have fared quite poorly and is unlikely to make it to the runoff. Karzai’s name and the Pashtun nationalism for which he ditched his national-unity politics have become a liability rather than an asset. He appears to have been incapable of perpetrating fraud on the scale that won him reelection in 2009. These are all good signs.
Presidents usually don’t leave office in Afghanistan peacefully, let alone democratically. Barring some catastrophe, it now appears Karzai will do both. Given his candidate’s apparently poor showing, we will probably see a peaceful transition of power to a new political party, an incredibly rare feat anywhere in the developing world, let alone in a country with an active insurgency.
Two candidates seem to have done significantly better than Karzai’s ally and may be the runoff contenders: a former World Bank official, and the current leader of the opposition party. They have some unsavory associations of their own, as can only be expected from the politics of a weakly governed, developing country. Afghans have resoundingly rejected the most noxious influence in their politics, the Taliban’s attempts to prevent them from having any modern politics at all. (Their allies in the Pakistani government, too, hoped for a failure, did their best to destabilize these elections, and came up well short.)
Afghanistan is deeply troubled, and one election hardly proves that democracy there will be durable. Part of the reason the vote was peaceful is that in the most remote areas, the government decided to close polling places rather than risk Taliban attacks. And Iraq had some successful elections, too, but has ended up with a sectarian strongman and a rising Islamist insurgency anyway.
It will be necessary but not sufficient, therefore, to avoid the mistakes we made in Iraq, and to work to maintain a security presence in the country. Afghanistan also needs cash: The security forces that proved themselves capable this past weekend cost half of the country’s GDP every year. That happens to be a pittance for the U.S., especially compared with our sunk costs in the country.
Millions of Afghans risked their lives this weekend to show that they want a voice in their government and are willing to defy those who would deny them one. They ought to be rewarded for it with steady American support.