Why the Taliban can’t prevent the monumental success that marks this weekend’s ballot.
We don't know yet who will prevail in Afghanistan's approaching presidential runoff, but we already know the big winner -- the Afghan people. The big loser, of course, is the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies.
The first-round voting generated widespread excitement and high turnout, reflecting Afghans' desire to choose their own leader, and launched two experienced, pro-Western technocrats into the runoff. And despite the chorus of complaints that America is abandoning Afghanistan, the vote caps a five-year turnaround, when the U.S.-led "surge" of military and development aid salvaged a situation trending towards defeat.
Today Afghanistan is becoming able to defend and develop itself; it is not the basket case ill-informed reports suggest. Indeed, as security concerns fade, the inward focus on economic and social challenges reveals the growing normalization of Afghan politics. The main threat it faces now comes, ironically, from the international community, where patience is wearing thin and pressures for a too-rapid drawdown of support could turn impending success into failure.
Nearly 7 million Afghans defied Taliban threats by voting in the initial balloting on April 5 -- a 58 percent turnout, higher than that in many U.S. elections. Fully 96 percent of likely voters told pollsters that they felt electing their own leader was very important for Afghanistan -- a degree of unanimity rare in polls anywhere.
The election results, largely free of the fraud that marred the last vote in 2009, advanced two well-educated, staunchly pro-American figures to the runoff. The front-runner, Abdullah Abdullah, is a medical doctor who served as foreign minister under outgoing President Hamid Karzai. His rival, Ashraf Ghani, a Columbia-trained anthropologist and ex-finance minister, literally wrote the book on Fixing Failed States at a Washington think tank. It's hard to imagine better leaders to build on their country's recent progress. (The latest poll puts the race between them at a dead heat; the outcome is likely to turn on who can better mobilize his supporters.)
Outside Afghanistan, few appreciate how dramatically its mood has changed since the surge began in 2009. In January of that year, after four years of spreading Taliban insurgency, Afghans split evenly on whether or not their country was moving in the right direction. By December 2013, in an unpublished poll by the same research group, 58 percent said it was headed in the right direction, while just 25 percent said the reverse. (In comparison, here in the United States, only 27 percent said our country was headed in the right direction in April's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.)
Security, which had deteriorated before the surge, also improved after American and Afghan forces grew in numbers and improved their tactics. Today, more than 370,000 Afghan police and troops have complete responsibility for their nation's security. While imperfect, they do a more-than-respectable job in a country that has never known fair policing or an effective national army.
The Taliban's impotence was obvious during the first round of this year's elections, which they had promised to violently disrupt -- and failed to. Their inability to engage in large-scale disruption was underlined last week by a desperate attempt to abort the runoff by killing Abdullah in a suicide bombing, which left the candidate unharmed in his armored car but killed a dozen passersby and bodyguards.
This failure is also echoed in the 90 percent drop in coalition casualties since 2010 and the rise in attacks on "soft targets" by frustrated insurgents. The Taliban may be a continuing problem, but they do not seriously threaten a military takeover of the country.
Afghans noticed the change: In the Dec. 2013 polling, nearly two-thirds rated local security as good. In fact, security no longer tops their concerns. Rather, the leading issues are the economy, infrastructure, and corruption -- as in other poor South Asian countries.
But even on these issues, things are looking up. Better security has helped strengthen the Afghan economy, as the circulation of goods and people becomes safer. Though Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest countries, its GDP has doubled since 2008. This growth has measurably improved Afghans' lives, too: Seven in 10 feel that they are better off today than five years ago.
With these gains, the Afghan government has consolidated popular support, while the Taliban are politically at bay. President Karzai's favorability rating is 77 percent -- a figure President Obama can only envy -- and the two runoff contenders' numbers are nearly as good. Meanwhile, sympathy for the armed opposition slumped by half between 2009 and 2011 to under three in 10, and remains low.
There are two keys to maintaining Afghanistan's security. One is the importance of continuing funding for Afghan security forces, a cost shared by the 50-nation coalition and a small fraction of the sums spent in the past decade. The other is the presence of around 15,000 U.S. and coalition troops for logistical, training, medical, and intelligence support, as President Obama recently proposed. This, too, is a fraction of the peak strength of 150,000 coalition troops a few years ago.
Beyond security, Afghanistan needs development, and development agencies have ambitious post-2014 plans. These include leadership programs for women to protect their post-Taliban gains, training for legislators, and support for potentially competitive exports (rugs, fruit, and so on).
Such efforts will help offset the economic effects of a shrinking foreign military footprint. So, too, over time, will the development of over $1 trillion in gold, copper, rare earth, and other recently discovered mineral reserves, which offers a potential path to prosperity.
The Taliban can win only if the United States abandons Afghanistan, slashing residual U.S. forces, cutting funds for Afghan security forces, or neglecting development aid. If that happens, and a fundamentalist regime and safe haven for al Qaeda terror return to Afghanistan, the big losers may not just be the Afghans -- but Americans, too.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images