The outcome of Afghanistan's elections remains unclear after this weekend's vote, but there are three things we do know. First, turnout was high. Second, despite dire threats, the Taliban did not disrupt the vote. And, last but not least, President Hamid Karzai's days in office are numbered.
Inconclusive as that may seem, it's already enough to present President Barack Obama with an opportunity. He can help Afghanistan by acting quickly to clarify the U.S.'s plans beyond the end of this year, his deadline for withdrawing all combat troops.
Despite some reports of fraud, the election is a huge step forward for Afghan democracy. More than 7 million ballots have been tallied, representing about 60 percent of Afghanistan's eligible voters. That's almost double the voting rate in the last such vote in 2009, which saw Karzai re-elected in a contest marred by reports of ballot stuffing. This time, candidates also sought to lure voters across tribal and ethnic lines. For instance, Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and one of the leading candidates, is identified with the Tajiks, but has a Hazara and a Pashtun on his ticket.
The Taliban's threat to "target all workers, activists, callers, security apparatuses, and offices" was hollow. There were only a few high-profile attacks on foreigners and ministry buildings in Kabul; in rural areas, the disruption was localized. The Taliban are smart enough to know that killing ordinary Afghan voters wouldn't broaden their support. Yet they did scare off many of the foreign election observers who would otherwise have been in place -- a success that could matter if complaints about fraud grow to the point where the losers decide to reject the results. A preliminary tally will be released April 24; a runoff between the top two candidates is likely.
As this proceeds, Afghanistan's friends will have to walk a thin line between warning candidates and power brokers about blatant ballot stuffing and accepting that a certain amount of fraud is inevitable in a country where 21 million voting cards were issued for roughly 12 million eligible voters. The incoming Afghan government mustn't be delegitimized at the outset, nor can it afford too many sore losers.
Obama has rightly congratulated Afghanistan's voters on their bravery. He should now reassure them of U.S. financial and military support. For the last year, he and Karzai have been caught up in a spat over the Bilateral Security Agreement. Karzai has refused to sign, and Obama has refused to commit to a residual training and counterterrorism force of 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. troops unless he does. This year's Pentagon and State Department budget requests for Afghanistan are vague placeholders, as planners vacillate between a "zero option" and a continuing presence.
All three leading candidates have said they'll sign the security agreement, but the ultimate winner may not take office until September. Obama should deliver Afghanistan and the U.S. from this impasse by taking the candidates at their word and committing now to the residual U.S. force. Failing to do so would create uncertainty, which the Taliban can exploit. And this force is critical to advancing the one abiding U.S. interest in Afghanistan: preventing its use as a base for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
Karzai's departure marks the first peaceful transition of presidential power in Afghan history. It won't make Afghanistan the Switzerland of central Asia, but it can and should open a new chapter in the country's relations with the U.S.
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