WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are hailing Saturday’s elections in Afghanistan, which are expected to produce the country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power. Although Afghanistan’s next president may not be known for weeks, the Obama administration hopes the new leader will finalize a bilateral security agreement to keep a residual U.S. military presence in the country.
Ballot counting continues after Afghans braved threats of violence to go to the polls in record numbers. Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani said the poll showed one thing.
"We have proven that we are people of the ballot, not of the bullets.  The Afghan public appreciates democracy, believes in it and is willing to make it work,” said Ghani.
Sporadic complaints of voting irregularities do not appear to have shaken Afghans’ faith in the democratic exercise, said presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah.
"We have registered our complaints, we have processed those complaints and referred it to the relevant commission, which is the Independent Election Complaints Commission, and hopefully those complaints will be dealt with duly," said Abdullah.
At more than 12 years, the Afghan war is America’s longest.  President Obama pledged to bring it to an end while preserving hard-fought gains in the country.  The administration views a successful transfer of power overseen by increasingly capable Afghan security forces as validation of their surge-and-withdraw strategy.  White House spokesman Josh Earnest spoke of the importance of continued support for Afghanistan.
“This is a little bit different than most elections that are conducted in the U.S. in which we find out the results that night or the next day.  But at the same time, we are hopeful that the elections will be peaceful and inclusive and broadly acceptable to the Afghan people.  A stable and acceptable political transition is critical to sustaining international support for Afghanistan,” said Earnest.
Unlike outgoing President Hamid Karzai, all Afghan presidential contenders have said they would sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States to keep several thousand military personnel in the country, primarily in a train-and-advise capacity.  Democratic Senator Tim Kaine backs the drawdown of U.S. forces, but says progress must not be squandered.
"There have been nearly 2,300 [U.S.] servicemembers who have given their lives in Afghanistan.  And the United States has spent $600 billion in Afghanistan.  While we cannot gloss over the challenges that remain in Afghanistan today and tomorrow, we should remember the progress that has been achieved in 13 years since the Taliban fell in October of 2001," said Kaine.
For now, from the White House to Capitol Hill, an almost audible sigh of relief can be heard that Afghanistan’s elections went forward with minimal violence, and that the country appears on track to have a president-elect declared by next month.