Yesterday was a good day for the Afghan people and their partners in the international community. Although some polling stations ran short of ballots and security threats forced others to close, the voting in Afghanistan’s national elections went much better than anticipated.
More than 7 million Afghans went to the polls – 58 percent of the eligible electorate. Participation doubled from the 2009 election. All groups took part in the vote, often waiting in long lines. Female participation was high in urban areas where polls were more accessible. Pashtun participation far exceeded expectations despite the greater security threat in the east and south.
The election demonstrates a rise in Afghan political consciousness. Speculation that President Karzai might find a way to stay on despite constitutional term limits proved unfounded. The more people became convinced that Karzai is leaving, the more enthusiasm the elections generated.
Afghans are taking charge of their own future, no longer allowing outside powers or brokered deals to determine their fate. The two strongmen who ran for President gained little traction. Those running for vice president played positive roles, in some ways, by encouraging major slates to cross ethnic and geographic boundaries.
The election was a repudiation of the Taliban. Violence in the run-up to the voting backfired. Each attack aimed at discouraging participation seemed to encourage even more people to register. Taliban efforts to intimidate communities at the local level also failed. Even in Pashtun areas in the east and south, turnout was high. With their cause and methods rejected, the armed opposition will undertake needed soul searching.
Afghan electoral institutions performed well. More so than in previous years, the international community operated largely in a supporting role as Afghans took the lead in conducting elections. Although there were reports of ballot shortages in some polling stations, voting, from an administrative standpoint, went remarkably smoothly.
Afghan security institutions were effective. Though some stations remained closed for security reasons, Taliban efforts to disrupt voting produced no major security incidents across the country. Afghans’ confidence in security institutions has increased, portending, perhaps, a new level of trust that could suppress the insurgency.
An important factor in yesterday’s success was the type of campaigns that the leading candidates ran. They crisscrossed the country, debated the issues, and accepted the security risks of campaigning among the people. The election featured highly substantive platforms, not just personalities and identity politics. The major candidates advocated ideas that were generally consistent with the values and aspirations that the United States has sought to inculcate in the country. These efforts mobilized voters and brought them to polling stations.
National elections may go to a second round and there may be setbacks before the next president is selected, particularly if losing candidates do not accept the results announced by the election commission.
But so far, the election vindicates the large investments and sacrifices of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. The Afghan people rose to the occasion, creating an environment of hope and expectation. This presents the country, particularly the new President, with an opportunity to build on the positive achievements of the last 12 years. By resisting the temptation for a winner-take-all approach and including the losing candidates and/or their supporters, the new administration can build a national consensus behind the reforms necessary to advance peace building, economic development, the rule of law, and anti-corruption efforts.
I have received many messages from Afghans in all major ethnic communities thanking the United States for its role and help in getting their nation to this historic moment. They hope to partner with the United States in stabilizing the region and defeating the extremists who have made an enemy of both the people of Afghanistan and the international community alike. If Afghan leaders carry out a balanced strategy of continuity and reform, and Washington and its allies see the Afghan campaign through to a successful conclusion, a major strategic victory over violent extremism may be at hand.
Zalmay Khalilzad was the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.