It scarcely needs to be said that the Afghan elections could have gone a great deal better. There could have been a higher turn-out, especially in the south. There could have been less fraud – less money and fewer ballot papers changing hands. There could have been less violence, before and during the poll. And there could have been a clearer victory for one or other candidate than it appears there will be. A convincing result in the first round would have allowed Afghans to open the next chapter in their chequered history sooner.
But this is not what happened. So the question now is: by how much did Afghanistan's presidential election fall short of what had been hoped for, and will Afghans nonetheless be able to regard the outcome as credible? It is vital that they should, if stability is to return to the country in any plausible shape or form.
Yesterday's official progress report, based on the 10 per cent of votes so far counted, presents a mixed picture, but one that could have been far worse. On the minus side, early returns suggest a closer result than many expected. This means there is a strong possibility that a second round of voting will be needed, with all the uncertainty and risks that will entail. President Hamid Karzai emerges at this early stage with a narrow lead over his closest challenger, the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. If the rest of the count bears this out, leaving no candidate with the more than 50 per cent share of the vote, the electoral process is set to drag on into October.
A relatively close result, however, also has a plus side, not least because it suggests that any fraud on the part of any one candidate has not been enough to clinch the outcome. This does not mean that the election was clean – far from it. Five days after the poll, nearly 800 claims of irregularities have been lodged with the Election Complaints Commission, 50 of which are described as serious. It does mean, though, that while the stakes for a second round will be extremely high, voters may be emboldened to turn out in the certainty that their vote will matter. The drawback, of course, is that violence could escalate as the stakes rise.
If, as it is probably wise at this point, we try to look on the bright side, there are other positives. One is the restraint shown so far by Dr Abdullah as the closest challenger. Anticipating yesterday's announcement, he urged Afghans "to be patient and to show responsibility". The threat of a violent stand-off, which remains so long as there is no definitive result and allegations of widespread fraud persist, may thus have been averted in the short term.
Another is the hands-off stance taken by the US leadership and Nato forces, who have treated their task as creating the most favourable conditions possible for an election – at some cost to themselves in terms of lives and funds – not to advance a particular outcome. President Karzai is said to be unhappy with the conspicuous coolness shown to him and his government by the US special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, who is not a man to mince his words. But, with so many questions open, not least the future of the foreign troop presence and the feasibility of bringing stability to Afghanistan at all, this election had to be about the will of Afghans, not about who was backing whom from outside.
The next days and weeks will be a time of tension and danger in Afghanistan, and the Taliban may scent an opportunity in the uncertainty. All involved have a responsibility not to make this fraught situation any worse.