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News Analysis: What Lessons Have Been Learned From Afghanistan's Elections?

Afghan women queue outside a school to vote in presidential and local elections in the northwestern city of Herat on April 5. Female participation in the polls was far higher than expected.
Afghan women queue outside a school to vote in presidential and local elections in the northwestern city of Herat on April 5. Female participation in the polls was far higher than expected.
KABUL -- U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the Afghan vote as "another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Afghans "braved threats and intimidation" and "sent a powerful message that the perpetrators of violence cannot win." NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen praised the "enthusiasm" of voters and the "outstanding job" done by Afghan security forces.

Indeed, Afghanistan's presidential and provincial elections on April 5 exceeded many expectations.

Preliminary results from the first round are expected on April 24, with a final result on May 14. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the two leading candidates will be held on May 28.

As election officials tally the votes, let's step back and look at three lessons learned from the landmark poll.

1. Democracy Is Firmly Taking Root

Around 7 million people, or 60 percent of eligible voters, cast their ballots, despite threats of widespread violence, torrential rain, and massive queues. It was a powerful message of repudiation to the Taliban. It also signaled that democracy -- after 13 years of foreign and Afghan blood being spilled and billions of dollars in aid spent -- has firmly taken root in the country.

As many Afghans were keen to point out, "Power comes through the ballot, not the bullet," a message that had been painted by the government on scores of street corners and buildings in Kabul.

Voting was extended by one hour to accommodate the vast numbers of voters. The tens of thousands of Afghans still waiting in line after polls closed were allowed to cast their ballots. The number of people who had come out to vote was so high in some areas that polling stations ran out of ballot papers. Thousands were turned away after waiting hours on end.

Significantly, female participation was far higher than expected, as was the number of voters in the country's south and east, militant strongholds where violence and Taliban intimidation had kept many Afghans away in the 2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentary elections.

That's not to say the vote was perfect. While turnout was significantly higher in urban areas, it was a mixed bag in insecure regions in the country's volatile east and south. In these areas, there were reports of dozens of polling stations failing to open due to insecurity. There were also reports of "ghost" stations, where voters simply failed to show up. At the same time, there were sharp rises in some insecure areas.

For example, there were reports of thousands turning out in the Andar district of Ghazni Province, where only three people voted in 2010. An anti-Taliban uprising has put the militants on the back foot in the district, but it is still considered highly insecure.

Many Afghans and foreign observers lauded the high turnout as a victory for Afghanistan's young democracy. International election observers had said before the election that turnout higher than 50 percent would represent a major success.

"It was my dream come true," said Shukria Barakzai, a prominent female member of parliament. "That was a fantastic slap on the face of the enemy of Afghanistan, a big punch in the face of those who believe Afghanistan is not ready for democracy."
Some Afghans have dubbed the success of the election a "Purple Revolution" after the color of the indelible ink used to mark voters' fingers.
Some Afghans have dubbed the success of the election a "Purple Revolution" after the color of the indelible ink used to mark voters' fingers.
Meanwhile, in an opinion piece published in "The Diplomat" on April 6, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said that "The election demonstrates a rise in Afghan political consciousness. Afghans are taking charge of their own future, no longer allowing outside powers or brokered deals to determine their fate."

There were powerful shows of defiance by Afghans.

One middle-aged man in the southern province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, voted despite militants severing the finger he had dipped in ink after he voted in 2009.

In Kabul, a blind man waited for many hours in the rain to vote for the first time in his life.

Meanwhile, elderly women in Kabul's poorer neighborhoods, many of them illiterate, showed up in force, triumphantly lifting their ink-marked index fingers in the air.

2. The Taliban's Strength May Be Overstated

Despite threats to the contrary, the Taliban failed to significantly disrupt the vote, raising questions about the ability of the militant group to tip the country back into chaos and regain power after most foreign combat forces leave this year.

The Taliban claimed to have carried out more than 1,000 attacks that killed dozens during election day, although they routinely exaggerate their claims. In reality, there were dozens of minor roadside bombs and attacks on polling stations, police, and voters during the day. The government said 20 people, mainly Afghan security forces, were killed in 140 attacks countrywide -- not an insignificant figure, to be sure. But there were no large-scale incidents in Kabul and the overall death toll and level of violence was much lower than the Taliban had threatened to unleash.

"The Taliban lost today," was a common remark among many Afghans. Others said the militant group's "space" in the country was shrinking. One Kabul resident put it this way: "The Americans couldn't defeat the Taliban in 13 years with all their military might. But we defeated them with our votes in a single day."

Meanwhile, some Afghans hailed a "Purple Revolution," the color of the indelible ink used to mark voters' fingers on election day. Afghans proudly showed off their stained index fingers to journalists, photographers, and television crews.

Many Afghans on the social networking website Twitter are ridiculing the cover of "Time" magazine's April 14 issue, whose headline reads "Return of the Taliban." The photo shows a cluster of burqa-clad women. A smaller headline reads, "These women want to vote. The Taliban wants to stop them. What America leaves behind in Afghanistan."

One Twitter user remarked, "I guess @TIME is regretting its last front page. Wow. Embarrassed for them."
Despite suffering a perceived setback on election day, it's likely too early to write off the Taliban, however.

"Even though the Taliban did not attack the campaign rallies and did not attack people if they lined up to cast their votes, I still think the insurgency is a very significant threat," says Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, who is based in Kabul. "The Taliban still hopes to persuade people that their cause is legitimate and carrying out violence against the people would have undermined that legitimacy.”

Some observers say the militia's low-profile may have been intentional. It is possible that the Taliban wanted to give the impression of improving security in a bid to accelerate the withdrawal of foreign troops and gain ground after the pullout. After all, the Taliban did successfully stage a string of high-profile attacks in Kabul in the run-up to the election.

3. Afghanistan's Security Forces Can Hold Their Own

Nearly 400,000 Afghan security forces -- including self-protection village militias and police cadets still in training -- fanned out across the country and ensured a relatively smooth vote.

Rings of checkpoints and roadblocks were set up around major cities, thwarting the Taliban's attempts to attack polling stations and target voters, candidates, and election officials. It was the largest security operation in the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The ability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) to maintain security after NATO's planned withdrawal has often been questioned by military experts, Afghan officials, and many inside the country. Morale is poor and illiteracy is high, as are desertion rates among the security forces.

But the country's security forces attracted widespread applause from all quarters on election day -- from the government, electoral bodies, and ordinary people. The resilience and strength of the security forces was hailed as one of the election's most significant achievements.

Afghans on the streets shook hands with police officers and soldiers. Others brought water and food for them. In central Kabul, one soldier was handed a flower by an old man who blessed him for his "sacrifice to our nation."

"The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) did extremely well on election day," Smith says. "By all accounts, they were well-disciplined and they pushed out into areas where they’ve normally had trouble asserting their control. The ANSF has been doing surprisingly well."

Ahmad Saeedi, a Kabul-based political analyst, says the ANSF have been surprisingly resilient.

"The security forces allayed people’s concerns about bombings and suicide attacks and prevented attacks from taking place," Saeedi says. "Moreover, the way citizens were treated was professional. If our security forces are equipped with proper weapons and have adequate salaries, I’m confident they can protect our sovereignty and freedom."

President Hamid Karzai, who is stepping down, has ordered bonuses, medals, and letters of appreciation to be given to all Afghan security forces for their bravery in protecting the elections.

One Kabul resident told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on election day, "I just voted. I'm proud of our security forces. They made me feel so secure, just like a bride."

Afghanistan's former ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, tweeted, "Magnificent display of competence, courage, and commitment of the 700,000 Afghans (security forces, 200,000 observers, and the IEC) for their success."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.