The Mankato Free Press
---- — We do not yet know who won the Afghan presidency in the elections held there last weekend. We do know who lost: the Taliban.
The Islamic militants, removed from power in Afghanistan more than a decade ago by American military might, have subsisted on guerrilla tactics since.
The conventional wisdom held that Afghans might turn out in the safer (if hardly secure) confines of the capital, Kabul, but outside, the Taliban’s intimidation would prevail.
Wrong. The turnout was far beyond expectations, with more than 7 million ballots tallied. That’s about 60 percent of the eligible voters and a vast improvement over the turnout in 2009, when Hamid Karzai was re-elected.
This was the best possible result for the West, for two reasons.
First, it suggests that the Afghan people are not resigned to a return of a religious fundamentalist regime but are invested in the concept of a democratic government.
Second, because Karzai will leave office. He has frequently been a difficult ally, not least in his refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement he negotiated with the United States, and his government has been notably corrupt. Washington will no doubt be glad to reset with a new president.
But this must be said for Karzai: He is leaving office on his own, not at the point of a gun and not in a coffin. Ceding authority on schedule is crucial to establishing democratic institutions. This was the political genius of George Washington and Nelson Mandela; in time, it may prove to be Karzai’s greatest gift to his country.
Nothing, of course, will come easy for the new president, whoever he is. All three of the potential winners have said they will sign the security pact with the United States, and unless the Obama administration has good reason to doubt that, Washington should plan on it being in place before the end of the year — the deadline to withdraw combat forces.
That means a residual U.S. force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops for training and counterterrorism. Americans are understandably, and rightly, weary of the Afghan war. We have invested much in the crushing of al-Qaida’s base there. Osama bin Laden is dead; we want to come home.
Were it only that easy.
The Americans will, and must, eventually leave Afghanistan for the Afghans. The British, at their height of empire, couldn’t control Afghanistan; the Russians, right across the border, couldn’t either. Washington should have no interest in trying.
Yet we have, after the 9/11 attacks, a genuine interest in seeing a legitimate government in control there to see that al-Qaida not rise again there. The weekend’s election was a positive step in that direction, but it is no guarantee.