Afghanistan's first-ever direct presidential election came off relatively smoothly last week. Feared attacks by remnants of the Taleban never materialized. And opposition candidates withdrew their threat to reject the results because of alleged irregularities, deferring to a U.N. commission. The election represented a sharp break from Afghanistan's often violent political past.
Assessing Afghanistan's political development on the basis of only one election may be akin to reviewing a multi-act play after only one act is over. Nevertheless, say analysts, the initial reviews are encouraging.
More than three-fourths of Afghanistan's nearly 10 million registered voters cast ballots. Senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer with extensive experience in Afghanistan, says he was impressed.
"You did not see the kind of violence that could have paralyzed the process. There obviously may have been voting irregularities; there always will be in third world countries such as Afghanistan," said Mr. Gerecht. "But the fact that it could go through this process so quickly, given the abysmal shape that Afghanistan is in, is quite impressive."
In an interview, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Tayeb Said Jawad, said voters were enthusiastic, and not intimidated by the prospect of violence. He noted an incident on election day when a rocket landed near a polling place in Kunar province, where a long line of women waited to cast their ballots.
"Nobody ran away," he said. "Everybody stayed and insisted on casting their vote. And they said, if we run away from one rocket attack today, these rocket attacks will continue forever."
These were in fact not Afghanistan's first elections. There were legislative polls in 1965 and 1969, but they were indirect elections.
Afghan politics was often conducted at the end of a gun barrel. The euphoria of the 1992 ouster of a Communist government by anti-Soviet fighters quickly vanished when squabbling over power among the victorious mujahedin degenerated into a civil war. The Taleban stepped into that power vacuum until it was dislodged by Afghan and U.S. forces in 2001.
Afghan watchers therefore held their breath when opposition presidential candidates threatened to reject the outcome of last week's election. In the past, that might have led to open warfare. But the candidates pulled back from the brink, agreeing to a U.N.-appointed panel's investigation of possible vote fraud.
Ambassador Jawad praised the opposition candidates' decision to back off from the challenge.
"The people of Afghanistan and the politicians in Afghanistan have matured very much, and they showed a lot of competence," he said. "And I'm glad that the political leadership of Afghanistan is listening to what the Afghan people demand."
But the candidates had a little foreign encouragement as well. According to Afghan sources, Western diplomats met with the opposition candidates with a simple message - don't return to the old ways.
Reuel Marc Gerecht at the American Enterprise Institute says the civil war, as he puts it, "burned Afghans to their very soul." It is that fear of the old ways, he says, that is Afghanistan's most potent weapon in its quest for true peace and stability.
"They may not have a perfect grasp of the democratic ethic; I'm sure that is not the case. But I'm not sure that's required," said Mr. Gerecht. "I think what is required is that they be allergic to those passions and those forces which plunged Afghanistan literally into an abyss."
That aversion to a bloody past will again be tested next year, when Afghans return to the polls to choose a legislature.