The importance of Afghanistan’s presidential election for the future of the country was never in doubt. Although the Taliban had threatened to disrupt the polls, categorising them as a ‘foreign plot’, it seems after Saturday’s vote that they failed. In the run up to election day on April 5, despite a spate of attacks against foreigners (election monitors, aid workers, journalists), they were unable to cow down the electorate from turning out. The turnout says it all: around seven million or 58 percent of the 12 million registered voters joined long lines queuing to cast their vote. Interestingly, the apprehensions that the Pashtun belt, where the Taliban are believed to have their stronghold, joined the rest of the country in what has been described as a slap in the face of the terrorists. The former Taliban ‘capital’ of Kandahar, which saw a low turnout and no women voting in the previous 2009 election, witnessed the same long lines at voting centres as in the rest of the country. Ironically, Afghan observers viewed the problem of ballot papers running out in many parts of the country, including Kabul, as a sign that more people wanted to vote than had been anticipated. The turnout and the relatively peaceful polls, with minor attacks in some provinces failing to dent the general picture, point to the historic emergence of a new political culture in the war-torn country, underlining the first democratic transition in Afghanistan’s history, a past darkened by violent and bloody changes. Security concerns led to some 959 voting centres having to be closed out of the 6,423 all over the country. There was no certainty on the eve of the polls who might emerge the winner amongst the three leading candidates: Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmai Rassoul and Ashraf Ghani. Preliminary results are expected on April 29. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes cast, a run off round between the two leading contenders is scheduled for late May. So although there is much to celebrate in the victory of the ballot over the bullet in this election, there is still many a slip, not the least of which could be rigging and fraud allegations that marred the 2009 presidential election and dented its credibility.
Whoever the new incumbent in the presidential palace turns out to be after this relatively protracted process, he will face considerable challenges. For one, he will be faced almost immediately after taking office to deal with the stalled Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that outgoing President Hamid Karzai refused to sign despite it being endorsed by a Loya Jirga convened by Karzai himself. Relations between Karzai and the US have reached an all time low, dealing the critical BSA a deadly blow, The importance of the BSA lies in its terms allowing some residual presence of western troops in a training and support role. The fate of the BSA could also impinge on military and economic aid to Afghanistan, without which the country could struggle. Although the 400,000 personnel of the Afghan army, police and intelligence services deployed on election day to provide security came through with relatively flying colours, the drying up of western military and economic assistance could exacerbate the difficulties of the new president, even more so after the western troops withdraw in bulk by the end of 2014. The Taliban may be expected to ratchet up their challenge to the post-election, post-withdrawal dispensation, and any failure to receive western aid could redound in their favour. Needless to say, if any lessons have been learnt from the experience of the west more or less abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, they are that the peace of the country, region and the world critically depends on supporting the country through this critical transition over the next few years, until such time as the country is able to stand on its own feet. Pakistan’s interest lies not in once again trying to ‘conquer’ Afghanistan through jihadi proxies, but supporting our neighbour in its quest for peace and development, not the least because enlightened self-interest suggests both peace and war in Afghanistan inevitably impact Pakistan too. *