Security for tomorrow’s elections in Afghanistan is on an unprecedented scale. With the Taliban’s desire to disrupt the process bloodily evident in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of troops have been deployed to polling stations. Despite the manifest dangers, though, ordinary Afghans are eager to have their say; an estimated 75 per cent of them intend to cast a ballot.
Their enthusiasm is understandable. It’s not only out of frustration at the current government’s failure to tackle the country’s rampant corruption, but also because the millions who go to the polls today will be participating in history. President Hamid Karzai, in power since Nato forces toppled the Taliban in 2001, is not eligible to stand. Thus, after decades of invasion, totalitarianism and war, Afghanistan is on the brink of its first peaceful transfer of power.
Violence is not the only danger today. While the three frontrunners – Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul – all talk up plans to crack down on graft, industrial-scale fraud has tainted every Afghan vote since 2001 and is expected to do so again. Candidates are also gearing up to fling charges of vote-rigging at their more successful opponents, risking further damage to the credibility of the outcome.
All of this is plenty to contend with. But 2014 is another sort of turning point for Afghanistan, too. Nato forces are committed to leaving by the end of the year. A shambolic election producing a feeble government and giving a fillip to the already resurgent Taliban could, at worst, see a slide towards civil war, without international troops to help keep a semblance of order.
One of the new president’s first tasks will, therefore, be to sign the agreement allowing 10,000 US troops to remain after December – a deal that would have already been done had the tricksy Mr Karzai not preferred to play political games. Afghan security is not the only issue here. With foreign aid accounting for more than 50 per cent of the national budget, widespread disorder that undermined international support would leave Kabul high and dry.
Tomorrow’s elections are, then, not just a watershed for Afghanistan. They are also a moment of truth for the US, Britain and others who have spent so much money and blood there since 2001. Opinion is bitterly divided over whether this year’s withdrawal is the end of a job largely done or an ignominious admission of defeat.
There have been successes. The economy has quadrupled in size; 20 years have been added to life expectancy and literacy rates have more than doubled. Women’s rights have also taken huge strides. Yet the country remains shot through with violence and corruption; ethnic tensions are unresolved and Kabul’s writ is far from universal. Meanwhile, poppy-growing is back on the rise. The Taliban are so far from beaten that there is talk of a political settlement, and regional powers from Iran to China may be tempted to meddle when the Americans leave.
Legitimate elections are not the only factor determining Afghanistan’s future stability. The creation (or not) of a viable military, progress (or not) in tackling Taliban strongholds across the border in Pakistan, relations between local warlords and the activities of regional extremists from Uzbekistan to India will all be crucial over time. But today’s polls are a chance for a central government with the authority it needs to stand a chance of success.