Turning Point: Afghanistan Chooses a New President

As rain pelted the shrouded men entering the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque in Kabul on April 5, attendants inside rushed back and forth, trying to minimize damage and prevent further chaos. Luckily, the problem they were responding to wasn’t a suicide bomber, but an altogether different and far more pleasant issue: their voting station had run out of ballots. In fact, the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque was not alone in its electoral difficulties. Across the war-torn country of Afghanistan, citizens of all ethnicities and (even more importantly) both sexes turned out to decide what many hope will be the first peaceful and democratic transition of power in Afghan history.

An Afghan man holds up a stained purple finger indicating that he cast his ballot. Image by Chris Allison.

After decades of war, the year 2014 marks a turning point for Afghanistan. The current Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was elected with American assistance after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, but has since become a hindrance to progress and even an embarrassment. In the 2009 election he was accused of massive vote rigging, prompting his opponent, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, to drop out just days before the final tally. More recently, Mr. Karzai has made several statements publicly denouncing the United States for its roll in perpetuating Afghanistan’s misery even while the U.S. bankrolled his budget, trained his army, and protected him from potential assassins. Clearly, Karzai needs to go.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, seen here with John Kerry, is the frontrunner in the 2014 Afghan elections. He opposed incumbent President Hamid Karzai back in 2009.

Karzai’s potential successors appear far more qualified to lead. Frontrunner Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s competitor from 2009, is an optometrist by profession and Tajik by ethnicity. His running mates are Mohammad Mohaqeq, a member of the Hazara minority, and Mohammad Khan, an ethnic Pashtun. Together the three cover most of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, an important factor in a country with borders that encompass a massive conglomeration of cultures and peoples. Dr. Abdullah’s main rival is Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a highly experienced Pashtun who is currently serving as the Finance Minister for Mr. Karzai. Mr. Ghani sports an impressive resume; he received his doctorate from Columbia University before teaching at a series of American universities including UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. Following his time in the United States, he spent a decade as part of the World Bank assisting in international development planning. Ghani was even considered for U.N. Secretary General in 2006.

Dr. Ashraf Ghani, who is currently serving as Afghan finance minister, is a key contender in this year’s presidential election.

While the leading candidates are well-versed in politics, what is yet to be seen is whether they possess the mettle needed to tackle the daunting problems facing Afghanistan. If the current agreements between the 50,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government hold, then all foreign troops will depart from Afghan soil by the end of this year, leaving the large but still fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA) alone to tackle a potent Taliban resurgence. This election was a fair test of progress made by the ANA in recent years. The demand for security brought all 350,000 ANA service members and many policemen out in force while the ISAF for the most part remained within its bases. Violence was fairly light in comparison to the 2009 election largely due to the increased security, but Afghanistan still has a long way to go.

The official results of the preliminary vote will be known less than two days from now on May 14. Although early numbers show Dr. Abdullah with a 13% lead over Dr. Ghani, it looks like no candidate breached the 50% barrier needed to avoid a runoff election. No matter what the outcome is, this vote will determine the future of Afghanistan and hopefully will lead to peace for the citizens of this troubled country.

Update (5/19/2014): Abdullah Abdullah finished first in the preliminary vote, winning 45% of the ballots cast, while Ashraf Ghani finished second with 32%. Since Abdullah did not receive a majority of all votes, he and Ghani will move forward to a runoff election which will be held on June 14.

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