Yesterday Afghanistan conducted its second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. While we won’t know the official results for a couple weeks — despite frontrunners, incumbent Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, both claiming victory — the reports about the voting that are coming out provide some important indicators on the state of Afghanistan today.
First, despite fears of widespread disruption by the Taliban and other militants, voting did occur. While there was violence across the country — nine civilians and 18 Afghan security force members were killed — the Taliban generally failed to follow through on threats to attack polling stations. Nevertheless, these threats did appear to suppress turnout in the violent south of the country. In Garmser district, where recently deployed U.S. Marines have been fighting the Taliban for almost two months, only 1,683 men voted out of a population of 80,000. Even Kabul had low turnout, though reports indicate that the capital’s low turnout was more due to disillusionment with the government than militant threats.
Second, there’s a real effort on the part of the international coalition to manage expectations. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke noted that “every prediction of disaster has turned out to be wrong” and “it seems clear that the Taliban utterly failed to disrupt these elections.” Marines on the ground in the town of Khan Neshin expressed surprise that the 250 to 300 people who voted did so at all. The local battalion commander “didn’t think we’d even get 10 people, to be honest with you, because of the intimidation campaign.”
Finally, the legitimacy of the vote is questionable. Most notably, female turnout appears to have been low across the country. There are two interrelated issues to be concerned about here: first is the effective disenfranchisement of Afghan women, which is in and of itself enough to delegitimize an election in the eyes of the international community. But this disenfranchisement leaves the door wide open for fraud — there are suspicions that registered female voters, both real and fictitious, will be used to stuff ballot boxes. The fact that voter registration cards were on sale for $10 a piece before the election further heightens suspicious of fraud. (Even Britney Spears managed to get registered to vote in Afghanistan.) A close election possibly decided by fraud only two months after a fraudulent election next door in Iran is a recipe for instability. Add the possibility of a run-off and the United States and NATO are looking at a precarious couple of weeks in Afghanistan.
So far, the U.S. has been right to manage expectations and emphasize the established election process in Afghanistan. But as Holbrooke stated, “The test is going to be in the counting.” If there is instability resulting from the official election results, the United States should continue to emphasize the primacy of the process without favoring one candidate or another. The elections process may slow down the counterinsurgency campaign by holding the Afghan government in stasis, but it is simply something that needs to be plowed through with an eye toward the legitimacy of the future government.