While the preliminary results released on the Afghan elections so far are scant, this much is clear: The Taliban failed in its goal to disrupt the voting enough to prevent any semblance of an election.
It did, however, intimidate voters in many parts of the country into staying home, especially females. According to NATO, the Taliban carried out more than 400 attacks on election day, a record, and turnout in the Pashtun-dominated provinces of the south was apparently very low.
A second round would build legitimacy and credibility into the Afghan political process. More democracy, not less, is a good thing in this war.
For NATO and the Afghan government, the major accomplishment was just holding the election in the face of the Taliban’s announced determination to disrupt the process. This is a pretty low bar for a military alliance with almost 100,000 foreign troops on the ground, but it was passed. The more difficult challenge—convincing Afghans and others that the outcome is legitimate and credible—still lies ahead.
Claims of victory by the contenders should be given little attention, given the trickle of preliminary results. Final results are not expected until next month, and they will provide much more insight into the status of the war.
• Evelyn Farkas: America's Latest Mistake in AfghanistanUntil then, a look back at Afghanistan’s previous elections is helpful in setting a base for interpreting the 2009 vote. In 2004, Hamid Karzai won Afghanistan’s first election by getting 56 percent of the vote with an official turnout of about 70 percent. It was more of a coronation than an election. Karzai did not face a national challenger, only several ethnic-based candidates who garnered votes only in their ethnic constituencies. Everyone knew that Karzai was America’s choice, and the Taliban was unable to muster a serious challenge to the process.
The 2005 provincial and legislative elections are a more relevant and interesting base for reviewing 2009. Official turnout was less than 50 percent nationally and probably closer to 40 percent, and it varied enormously by province. The Shiite province of Bamiyan had 71 percent turnout, but the Pashtun provinces in the south—the stronghold of the Taliban—had much lower. Zabol had less than 20 percent, Kandahar less than 25 percent, and Oruzgan, the home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, only 23 percent.
Even more varied was the vote by gender. In one Tajik province, women outvoted men 58 percent to 41 percent. But in most provinces female turnout was 10 percent to 20 percent lower than the male vote. And in the Pashtun belt it was even more unbalanced. In Zabol the vote was 96 percent male and in Oruzgan and Helmand 86 percent male. In 2005, the Taliban were not yet strong enough to mount a real challenge to the vote; the Pashtuns simply did not feel the process was legitimate.
Indeed, one of the clear lessons both of 2005 and 2009 is the widespread disaffection of the Pashtun Taliban belt. The heartland of the old Islamic emirate of Afghanistan has never accepted the legitimacy of its overthrow in 2001.
So what’s next, aside from slow returns and lots of posturing about them? If Karzai wins in the first round, he will owe victory to the politicians and warlords who endorsed him in the last months of the campaign, especially Abdul Rashid Dostum. Well-known as an exceptionally brutal warlord who controls much of the Uzbek vote, Dostum started his career in the Afghan communist army and was the Soviet Union’s only real effective Afghan commander. He jumped ship and joined the mujahideen, precipitating the collapse of the communist regime in 1992. Since then, he has switched sides endlessly, but in August he endorsed Karzai. If Karzai wins because of Dostum, prospects for anti-corruption and good governance will be slim. NATO and America will need to be clear with Karzai that the warlords will not make a comeback.
If no one gets 50 percent plus one, a runoff second round will take place in October. Karzai and his likely opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, will have a real horse race. Each will seek endorsements from the other contenders and the warlords. Dostum could flip again. The Taliban will try again to assassinate the candidates and upend the process.
But a second round also would build legitimacy and credibility into the Afghan political process. More democracy, not less, is a good thing in this war. Afghans will have a real choice. That will be good for them and for Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. He chaired President Obama’s strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan last winter and is author of The Search for Al Qaeda.