By American standards, or those in most European democracies, the run-up to last weekend’s presidential election in Afghanistan and the polling itself were unacceptably violent.
At least 20 people, mostly military personnel and police officers, were killed Saturday — election day. At least 43 others, mostly civilians, were wounded in attacks on voting centers. And Afghan security personnel killed more than 80 insurgents — mostly Taliban – and thwarted several attacks on polling places.
By the standards set for this election, however, it was a great success. Roughly 7 million Afghans — about 60 percent of eligible voters — performed an act of citizenship all but unthinkable in their country 15 years ago. No less impressive, one-third of the voters were women. And Afghans cast ballots despite repeated Taliban threats of violence and enough acts of violence to deter even the courageous. Acts of violence in the weeks and days before the election exceeded those on election day.
The number of voters far exceeded the total in the previous two elections, and unlike the 2009 election in which President Hamid Karzai was re-elected, fraud was not widespread.
Security, however, was widespread. More than 300,000 military and police personnel — almost all of whom were Afghans — were on conspicuous duty, there were checkpoints every few hundred yards in Kabul and other cities, and anyone who entered polling places was searched.
Afghans didn’t choose their president Saturday; to prevail, a candidate had to win a majority of the votes. But voters narrowed the field, apparently to Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former official of the World Bank.
Whether Afghans chose wisely remains to be seen, but it would be difficult to do worse than Karzai.
The turnout itself constituted a triumph over the tyranny of the Taliban. Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan lawmaker interviewed by CNN, was thrilled to see fellow citizens vote. “See, wonderful people are coming to practice democracy. We are not afraid of the threats. As much as they kill us, we get stronger… We go and vote because we are fed up. We want to see real change; we want to enjoy our democracy.”
Afghanistan remains a dangerous place — for Afghan advocates of democracy as well as the 30,000-plus American troops who remain there. But Saturday’s election was the most hopeful sign in years that the sacrifices that the United States has made — in lives lost and damaged and in vast sums of money invested — might still result in something resembling a democracy, fragile though it might be.