LONDON – In a nation more associated with calamity than consensus, the initial results of Saturday’s Afghan presidential election are startling.
Despite Taliban threats to attack polling stations nationwide, the same percentage of Afghans turned out to vote — roughly 58 percent — as did Americans in the 2012 U.S. presidential race. Instead of collapsing, Afghan security forces effectively secured the vote.
And a leading candidate to replace Hamid Karzai is Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank technocrat who has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, a Lebanese Christian wife, and an acclaimed book and TED talk entitled “Fixing Failed States.”
“Relative to what we were expecting, it’s very hard to not conclude that this was a real defeat for the Taliban,” Andrew Wilder, an American expert on Afghanistan, said in a telephone interview from Kabul on Monday “And a very good day for the Afghan people.”
Two forces that have long destabilized the country — its political elite and its neighbors — could easily squander the initial success. Evidence of large-scale fraud could undermine the legitimacy of the election and exacerbate long-running ethnic divides. And outside powers could continue to fund and arm the Taliban and disgruntled Afghan warlords, as they have for decades.
“None of it means it’s over, Afghanistan is a democracy and we’ve won,” said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “But I don’t think you can look at this turnout — in the rain and against death threats — and say nothing much has been achieved, as critics like to say.”
One of the biggest beneficiaries was the Afghan security forces. To the surprise of both Afghan and foreign observers, the Taliban failed to carry out a single large-scale assault in a major city. The group claimed to have carried out 1,000 attacks nationwide but security officials said that was a gross exaggeration. Poll observers said the level of violence was unclear.
This year there were about 90,000 fewer U.S. and NATO troops in the country, and those that remained were confined to bases, serving as a reserve force. In their place were 350,000 Afghan police and soldiers, fanned out across the nation.
Wilder said the Afghan government security effort in Kabul, where he observed the vote, was the most sweeping he has seen in thirty years of intermittently working in the country. “It was a really phenomenal security operation,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
After the vote, Afghan police were a “sensation” on social media, garnering wide praise, according to Wilder. Their popularity also extended to the street: one poll observer reported seeing a group of young Afghans buy scores of roses and distribute them to police officers the day after the vote.
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan who served a senior adviser to the State Department from 2009 to 2013, warned of Taliban retaliation.
“There will be a test of strength this year and next year,” Rubin said, referring to Taliban attacks. But “an election that goes well can only strengthen the morale of the security forces and reduce the morale of the Taliban.”
In terms of candidates, it was Ghani, the technocrat turned effective campaigner, that most surprised observers.
Despite wide praise for Ghani’s 2002-2004 tenure as Afghanistan’s finance minister, he was seen as lacking political skills or a large electoral base. Afghans who remained in the country during the 1980s Soviet occupation and 1990s civil war seemed to resent Afghans who, like Ghani, had fled the country and flourished.
After his 2009 defeat, Ghani remained in Afghanistan, built a home and took a position overseeing the transition of security operations from foreign forces to Afghan units. Visiting every province in the nation, he developed a vast network of supporters. Criticized in the past for being too haughty, abrasive and Western, he donned local clothes and grew a short beard.
In a maneuver that surprised many, he forged an electoral alliance with Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Uzbek warlord long accused of gross human rights violations. Having Dostum as an ally delivered a large block of votes to Ghani. In debates and on the campaign trail, Ghani vowed to end corruption and modernize Afghanistan.
“He has been exciting to young people,” said Neumann, the former ambassador. “He is really the change candidate.”