Afghans will go to the polls on Saturday to elect a new President. For the first time since 2001, President Hamid Karzai will step down and transfer the presidency to an elected successor, with uncertain consequences for Afghanistan’s future. These elections are entirely Afghan-run and unlike in previous elections, Afghan security forces are in the lead. The international community has moved into the background as Afghans decide their future.
Eight presidential candidates remain in the race, with three leading contenders — Abdullah Abdullah, who ran against President Karzai in 2009 and lost; Ashraf Ghani, a former Finance Minister to President Karzai and ongoing advisor; and Zalmay Rassoul, President Karzai’s former Foreign Minister. Given inadequate polling, the competitive nature of the race, and the potential for fraud, it’s difficult to predict the results. But a close election seems likely, leading to a second round and delayed final outcome.
The election matters both for what it makes possible in Afghanistan and also what it risks. In the best-case scenario, a widely accepted election result by Afghans has the potential to usher in a leader with strengthened political support to tackle Afghanistan’s challenges. It may give the current political system breathing space to engage in the long-term work necessary to make the state more stable and sustainable.
At the same time, it won’t end the insurgency or address the government’s structural flaws and lack of accountability. New leadership will need to pursue a peace process with armed and unarmed actors; undertake political reforms to address a dysfunctional government structure; and continue to build a more sustainable economy that is not so reliant on foreign assistance.
Many Afghans, especially in the cities, have expressed real enthusiasm for these elections and their potential to bring about change. They express a desire to build on what has already been accomplished, including significant developmental gains, more opportunities for women and the seeds of democratic institutions. On the flip side, a highly disputed, illegitimate and/or failed election has the potential to threaten the political center itself, expand war among Afghans and fragment the government’s security forces.
The elections will also impact how the international community engages with Afghanistan post-2014. U.S. and NATO troops continue to drawdown, with 33,000 U.S. troops remaining (from a peak of more than 100,000) and an additional 17,000 NATO-ISAF troops. With the combat mission ending in December 2014, uncertainty remains over whether a small U.S. and NATO-ISAF military presence will remain to train and advise the Afghan National Security Force and to conduct counterterrorism operations. While Karzai has resisted singing this Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, the three top presidential contenders have indicated that they would.
A failed election also puts at risk a small military presence and potentially even more importantly, ongoing funding needed to sustain the Afghan state and its security forces. In 2012, the United States and other donors have committed to providing at least $4 billion annually through 2015 to fill Afghanistan’s dangerous fiscal gap. A suspension or dramatic reduction of this funding would have dangerous consequences for the coherence of Afghanistan’s security forces and the state overall.
The Taliban insurgency has attempted to disrupt and delegitimize the elections through violent attacks — a recognition that they find this election deeply threatening. Anyone associated with the campaign or the current system is a legitimate target for insurgents, including foreign and Afghan civilians, security forces, and electoral officials.
The elections on Saturday offer both opportunity and peril for Afghans. And while the international community can provide support on the margins, ultimately it will be up to Afghans to determine what’s next.
Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress where she focuses on U.S. national security, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and terrorism.