On Saturday, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president. If things go smoothly, it will be the first-ever peaceful transfer of power in a country where regime change has historically been engineered via assassination, coup, or foreign military intervention.
It will also serve as a verdict on the long and bloody US-led war that promised to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. By most accounts, the mission has fallen significantly short of its stated goal.
“Afghanistan is neither more peaceful nor more stable than it was a decade ago,” said Graeme Smith, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul. “From that point of view, the NATO core mission was clearly a failure.”
But if Afghanistan can hold a valid election that installs a widely accepted leader, then Washington and its allies can claim some measure of success.
“The degree to which Afghans see the winner as legitimate will depend on the behavior of the losers,” Smith said. “All of the contenders have a stake in the stability of the system, so, although they might rock the boat, they won’t try and capsize it.”
Afghans are expressing high interest in the election, and many have stood in long lines to get their voter registration cards.
But this could be a problem: Some of those in the lines have been there before.
“Multiple registrations have resulted in almost twice the number of registered voters as eligible voters,” according to a report earlier this year by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
So voters may cast numerous ballots or sell their extra cards to ballot box stuffers.
But with all of the mess, there still are the outlines of a genuine contest here. In contrast to the badly flawed 2009 elections, when Karzai’s team was accused of blatantly rigging the vote, the outcome is not necessarily a done deal.
“The fact that, this close to the election, no one really knows who the winner will be contributes to legitimacy,” said the ICG’s Smith. “It’s a real dogfight.”
So, who are the contenders? Eight presidential candidates are on the ballot, but the race has narrowed to three front-runners, each with his own historical baggage.
This eye doctor has a vision
Abdullah Abdullah. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
Abdullah Abdullah has long sought the top job. An ophthalmologist, born in 1960, he’s best known for his closeness to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the mujahedeen commander who was killed right before the 9/11 attacks. Massoud is revered by some and loathed by others, which will complicate Abdullah’s campaign.
Abdullah is half Pashtun, half Tajik, a blend of the country’s two main ethnic groups. This may or may not be a hindrance in Afghanistan’s volatile cultural mix.
Conventional wisdom says only a Pashtun can win. While exact figures are not available, most experts estimate that Pashtuns make up about 45 percent of the population, with Tajiks following at 25 percent. The third main group is Hazaras, with about 15 percent.
The other two front-runners are both Pashtun.
This technocrat gave up his US passport
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has a PhD from Columbia University in New York and is a former World Bank official. Born in 1949, he lived for decades in the United States, and was at one point a US citizen. Afghan law prohibits those with dual citizenship from running for president, and Ghani has said that he relinquished his US passport.
Ghani is admired by the educated elites in Afghanistan, and has a dedicated youth following. His choice of running mate may be problematic, however. He has balanced his ticket with mujahedeen commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has a well-publicized reputation for brutality and has been cited for war crimes by international and Afghan groups.
But Dostum is wildly popular among ethnic Uzbeks, who make up about 10 percent of the population.
Karzai’s man, and a woman
Afghan presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul applauds after a speech by his vice presidential candidate Habiba Sarobi. (Hashmatullah/AFP/Getty Images)
Zalmai Rassoul, born in 1943, is a former foreign minister of Afghanistan who is seen as Karzai’s anointed successor. Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Rassoul's choice of running mate gives hope that women are making progress in Afghanistan. Habiba Surobi was the first woman to head a province, when she was apponted governor of Bamian in 2005. Now she's the sole woman in the presidential race.
But is there substance behind this ticket?
“Rassoul is a weak candidate; if he wins Karzai will continue to rule from behind the scenes,” said one foreign expert who was working with the Afghan election commission. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak with the media.
This may be bad news for the international community.
Karzai, handpicked by the US to lead Afghanistan in 2001, has been quite a handful lately. His bitter denunciations of NATO over civilian casualties, and his refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US, have led President Barack Obama to threaten a total pullout at the end of this year.
A legitimate vote
Washington hopes to strike a better deal with a new president once the elections are certified as legitimate. According to the foreign expert, this is likely to be quick.
“We don’t even talk about ‘free and fair’ elections in Afghanistan now,” he said. “We talk about ‘genuine and credible.’ We are just looking for something that can pass the laugh test.”
But even that might be too ambitious.
One problem is voter lists — or lack thereof.
“Afghanistan does not have a voter registry; nor does it have any kind of reliable population database,” writes Martine van Bijlert, of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. “This means that nobody knows how many voters there are, where they live or where they may want to vote.”
Monitoring the elections won’t be easy, either, especially with the Taliban’s threats to disrupt the poll with violence. The group has already made a credible showing with regular assaults in the lead-up to the vote.
More from GlobalPost: Taliban’s attempts to disrupt the vote include attacking this Kabul hotel popular with Westerners
The ICG's Smith says tech-savvy young Afghans may help chronicle events at the polling centers.
“There is slightly better visibility through camera phones and 3G,” he said. “The campaigns will be making an effort to have their people document the results.”
The threat of violence won’t dissuade voters, according to graduate student Mohammad Haroon, who spoke by phone to GlobalPost from the UK, where he’s currently on scholarship.
“People have been saying that we have to go against the insurgents and prove that we are not scared of their threats,” he said.
Journalist Jean MacKenzie worked as a reporter in Afghanistan from October 2004 to December 2011.