Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What if the Afghan elections actually work?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Americans are dubious about the Afghanistan war, questioning what it achieved
  • Peter Bergen says attention should be paid to the robust election campaign
  • Candidates seeking to succeed Hamid Karzai are debating, voters are listening, he says
  • Bergen: Despite Taliban, Afghanistan could see its first democratic transfer of power

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- Afghans will go to the polls on Saturday to elect their second president since the overthrow of the Taliban in the winter of 2001.

You might be wondering: Why bother? After all, doom and gloom are supposedly the order of the day in Afghanistan. A Pew/USA Today poll in January found that slightly more than half of Americans believe the United States has mostly failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.

A month earlier, a CNN poll found that the Afghan War might well be the most unpopular war in American history. An overwhelming 82% of Americans are now opposed to the war. (At the start of 2014, the United States had 38,000 troops in Afghanistan.)

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Dire predictions of a civil war breaking out after the withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 have been a staple in the American media for years, including in quite sensible publications such as the New Yorker.

But a surprisingly under-reported set of developments has been taking place over the past several weeks in Afghanistan ahead of Saturday's presidential election. It shows that Afghans are not preparing for another civil war and instead a large majority of Afghans are planning to participate in the first democratic transition of power in Afghan history, while the presidential candidates are engaged in the kind of campaigning and deal-making that would gladden the heart of Bill Clinton.

Despite the entirely predictable efforts of the Taliban to disrupt the run up to the election, there is still likely to be a big turn out on Election Day. A suicide bomber wearing a military uniform, for instance, killed six police officers on Wednesday inside the Interior Ministry, which is both well protected and in the heart of downtown Kabul.

Even with the Taliban violence, recent polling by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan found that 75% of Afghans said they wanted to vote. That is essentially the same finding of a separate poll taken almost a year ago that found that 76% of Afghans planned to vote.

Even allowing for some drop-off on Election Day, most Afghan experts I have talked to believe the turnout will likely be in the 60% to 70% range. Turnout in the previous presidential election in 2009 was only around 30%.

Packing up, shippping out of Afghanistan
Abdullah Abdullah on Afghan future
Afghan Pres candidate Rassoul speaks out
'Taliban is in a position to come back'
Soldier's bravery earns Medal of Honor

By contrast, the last time a U.S. presidential election had a 60% turnout was in 1968, and the last time it was above 70% was in 1900.

The high voter turnout estimates are based on the great excitement the Afghan elections have engendered. There have been substantive televised debates between the leading candidates, an astonishing development when you recall that under the Taliban it was only 13 years ago that television was banned entirely.

Indeed, under the Taliban there was no media to speak of beyond Radio Shariat, which dispensed grim Taliban propaganda. Afghanistan's now-vibrant media -- today there 75 television channels and 175 radio stations, as well as hundreds of print publications -- is giving the presidential campaign wall-to-wall coverage.

Meanwhile, the presidential candidates are addressing vast rallies across the country.

There has also has been real Chicago-style political horse-trading during the campaign. Candidates with little public support, such as Qayum Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's brother (and in another life, a restaurateur in Baltimore), recently ended his presidential bid and threw his support to another candidate, a former foreign minister, Zalmai Rassoul.

Despite much fretting that President Karzai would publicly endorse one of the eight candidates still in the running, he hasn't done so and his supposedly preferred candidate, Rassoul, came in a distant third in a poll released over the weekend.

Most impressively, the two campaigns that are consistently leading in the several polls taken during the past weeks have crossed ethnic lines to form their tickets. Top presidential contender Ashraf Ghani, who earned his Ph.D. at Columbia, is from the Pashtun ethnic group and he is running with Abdul Rashid Dostum as his No. 2, a leader of the Uzbek ethnic group.

The other front-runner is Dr. Abdullah Abdullah who is identified with the Tajik ethnic group (despite the fact that his parents are Tajik and Pashtun). Abdullah is partnered with Mohammad Mohaqeq, a leader of the Hazara ethnic group, and he also has a Pashtun on the ticket, Mohammad Khan, who is affiliated with Hezb-i-Islami, a splinter group of the Taliban.

Importantly, neither of the front-runners is an old school warlord. Indeed, they are both impressive technocrats. Abdullah is an eye doctor by training who became Afghanistan's most capable foreign minister under President Karzai. Ghani was the country's most able finance minister, also under President Karzai. Both these candidates can credibly promise sorely needed good governance in Afghanistan should they assume the presidency.

Of course, there are caveats to all this. The 2009 presidential election was marred by massive fraud. Could this happen again? This is much less likely for several reasons: There is considerably more local media attention about this issue than was the case five years ago; there have been several nationwide polls in the run-up to this election that establish quite firmly that Ghani and Abdullah are the front-runners, so fraudulently fixing some other candidate to take the lead would be hard to accomplish, and all the major candidates will have their representatives at the thousands of polling stations across the country, according to a senior Afghan official.

Could Taliban violence keep voters away on Election Day? Maybe in some places, but U.S., NATO and Afghan forces have long planned for this day, so expect to see a comprehensive security plan in place. According to the senior Afghan official, Afghanistan's borders with neighboring Pakistan will be sealed to the extent possible on polling day so as to prevent any Taliban insurgents or suicide bombers crossing over from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The official says Kabul International Airport will also be closed.

A wild card that could upset the election process would be violence against one of the well-guarded leading contenders. Abdullah's motorcade was attacked by unknown assailants in February. He escaped unhurt.

Afghan election law requires the winning presidential candidate to obtain more than 50% of the votes to win. Given that there are eight candidates still in the field, such an outcome seems unlikely. That means the two top candidates from Saturday's voting will go to a runoff election. According to the senior Afghan official, the runoff will likely take place on June 20.

All the major candidates have said they will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA, with the United States that would allow American troops to be based in Afghanistan in an advisory capacity for many years after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops at the end of 2014.

The United States made a fundamental error when it conceived that real peace ... centered on doing some kind of deal with the Taliban.
Peter Bergen

Karzai has famously refused to sign the agreement. Most Afghans want the BSA, because they see even a relatively small presence of U.S. soldiers and other NATO allies as a guarantor of the country's stability.

As one senior Afghan official put it to me when discussing the hoped-for long-term presence of U.S. troops, "We can either be Somalia or we can be South Korea." It's obvious that most Afghans prefer the latter outcome. Under a U.S. security umbrella, over the past several decades South Korea went from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest.

Though Karzai has been criticized by President Obama and members of Congress for not signing the BSA, in fact he has actually done the long-term relationship between Afghanistan and the United States a distinct favor, because the BSA will now be signed by the winner of the presidential election, a politician who will have a substantial mandate from the Afghan people, rather than by Karzai, who is at this point the lamest of ducks.

What of the Taliban? Well, they regard elections as against Islam, so they will write themselves out of this historic event and will only be seen by most Afghans as spoilers who will try to interrupt the election.

And in a significant turn of events, the Pakistani military is preparing a large-scale military operation along the Afghan-Pakistan border into the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, which has long been a sanctuary for the most virulent branch of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network. According to two U.S. officials who closely follow Pakistan, the Pakistani military is geared up for this operation in a manner that is unprecedented, and it is only the civilian political leadership that is dithering about whether to pull the trigger.

The United States made a fundamental error when it conceived that real peace in Afghanistan, which has been wracked by three decades of war, centered on doing some kind of deal with the Taliban. As a result, well-intentioned U.S. officials put a great deal of diplomatic effort into trying to negotiate some kind of peace deal with the Taliban. Absolutely nothing has come of this multiyear effort, which was always a pipe dream, as I predicted in this space three years ago.

The negotiations with the Taliban were known in Washington circles as "the reconciliation process." In fact, the real reconciliation process is what you will see in Afghanistan on Saturday: Huge turnout by voters across the country voting across ethnic lines for seasoned politicians who have partnered with leaders of other ethnic groups.

This isn't the predicted civil war; it's more like a civics love fest. If only we could try to import some of this spirit into the U.S. Congress.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT