When Afghans went to the polls earlier this month to elect a new president, Afghan social media enthusiasts sent out some incredible photos of women voters.
The long, snaking lines of women in burkas, holding up sheets of plastic for protection from freezing rain, were a stunning repudiation of Taliban misogyny and violence. My favorite photo, tweeted by an Afghan journalist named Shafi Sharifi, showed an elderly, black-draped lady in a wheelchair, holding up a forefinger stained with indelible ink, saying: “I voted because women can’t expect things to improve if they don’t vote.”
Cynics take note: These elections matter, not just for Afghan women but for the future of the country. And they show why the United States should maintain strong economic and security ties to Kabul.
I know you’ve seen those purple fingers before, in Iraq, where 2005 elections were supposed to pave the way to democracy but led to more sectarian violence. Elections haven’t turned out well in Egypt, either.
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I also know this election isn’t over — preliminary results won’t be known until the end of April and, if none of the eight candidates gets more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a runoff. Moreover, the Taliban remain a threat — especially because neighboring Pakistan gives them safe haven.
But this election proved that Afghanistan is not the hopeless case many Americans believe it to be.
First, the vote showed that most Afghans want change by ballot, not the bullet — meaning they want better government, better security, and less corruption. This was Afghanistan’s third presidential election, and the last, in 2009, was marked by such fraud that it disillusioned many voters. Yet this time election observers say the level of fraud was way down, and voter turnout was double that of 2009, including 60 percent of eligible voters. So many voted that several polling places ran out of ballots, and the numbers would have been even higher had there not been Taliban intimidation in some rural areas.
“The desire for change is so gigantic,” says the Carnegie Endowment’s Sarah Chayes, an Afghan expert who lived for years in Kandahar and advised top U.S. commanders. “It was remarkable how people really turned out.”
Second, “This vote was a strong ‘No’ to the Taliban, and a reaction to the violence,” according to the well-known Afghan human-rights activist Sima Samar, whom I reached by phone in Kabul. Voters disregarded Taliban demands that they stay home.
As I’ve heard repeatedly on trips to Afghanistan, even from village elders who share the same Pashtun ethnic background as the Taliban, Afghans don’t want a return of harsh Taliban rule. Nor do most Afghans agree with the militants’ ban on girls’ education.
Will the Taliban, or their Pakistani backers, heed the voters’ wishes? “Some of the Taliban might get the message,” says Samar. “And Pakistan should understand that the Afghan people are not the same as in 1992.” She was referring to the period after the Soviets quit Afghanistan, when Pakistan helped bring the Taliban to power in an effort to strengthen its hand against archenemy India.
Afghans today are more sensitive to Pakistani interference and have many more contacts with the outside world.
Third, the election indicated that most Afghans want a continued alliance with the West. All the leading candidates pledged to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the United States that would permit a small force of around 10,000 troops to stay on to train Afghans. (Current President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the accord, which leads many Afghans to believe he wants a dangerous deal with the Taliban.)
The voters made clear that the BSA has real importance to them. “This election is a strong sign of people’s desire for a link to the international community,” Samar says.
Finally, the election seems to be a repudiation of the rampant corruption of Karzai’s administration. His favored candidate, Zalmay Rasoul, appears to be running third, behind former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani and the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
The next president may not be able to shake the venal political culture that has grown up over the past decade, fed by billions in foreign aid. But Afghan voters have shown they are far more politically aware than in the past. They don’t want their country to once more become a safe haven for Islamist extremists who threaten them and the West. Nor do they want to be part of Pakistan’s proxy war with India. “If they see (leaders) they can identify with and see less predatory behavior, there is nothing Pakistan can throw at them they couldn’t turn around,” says Chayes.
Can Ghani or Abdullah deliver? Will President Obama stay committed after 2014? We don’t know yet. But the Afghan elections demonstrate why it’s worth giving Kabul another chance.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at email@example.com.