WASHINGTON — Thursday's election in Afghanistan won't end the eight-year fight against the Taliban, bring U.S. troops home sooner or ensure a competent democratic government.
Officials say it could, however, help stem the recent political gains of the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s and gave refuge to Osama bin Laden.
That hopeful result depends on whether the voting is seen by ordinary Afghans as legitimate — no certainty in a country whose army and other institutions were built and paid for largely by the U.S. and other foreigners. Many Afghans take it for granted that the election outcome has been predetermined, even though U.S. officials and international groups have taken pains to stress their neutrality.
The election comes at a point of weak U.S. public support for the war amid rising U.S. casualties. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday found that a majority of Americans see the war as not worth fighting.
Karl Eikenberry, the retired three-star Army general who became U.S. ambassador to Kabul in May, said in an e-mail exchange with The Associated Press on Wednesday that the elections can be an important step toward achieving the key U.S. goal of preventing Afghanistan from again sheltering al-Qaida.
"This election is vital to strengthen the connections between the Afghan people and their leaders," Eikenberry wrote. "Only by doing so will the violence that afflicts their country eventually be contained and will Afghanistan never again become a haven for international terrorism."
Will Afghans accept vote?
There is a risk, however, that rising violence — during the balloting or in the weeks to follow — could undermine rather than strengthen the legitimacy of the Afghan government. So the fact that millions could cast their vote in the midst of a war may not, by itself, ensure a step toward political stability.
"Whether the election is seen as legitimate, whether the election leads to violence — those things will have just as much impact on the political situation" as the balloting itself, said Nora Bensahel, senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., a largely government-funded think tank.
Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan during the first post-invasion presidential election, in 2004, said it would be perilous to predict whether the election will improve stability.
"The degree to which the results of the election are accepted by the people of Afghanistan as legitimate is an absolute unknown right now," he said, adding that the vote could lead to "significant destabilizing."
Incumbent President Hamid Karzai is expected to win re-election, although he is seen as weak by many Afghans and faces the possibility of a run-off election if he fails to gain at least 50 percent of the vote.
The hope is that the next Afghan government — regardless of who holds the presidency — can make strides toward weeding out official corruption and establishing a workable justice system. Those achievements are seen by many as key to keeping the international financial and military support in place.
"This is a chance for the Afghans to change our minds" about their commitment to good governance, said Sean Maloney, associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada.
More harm than good?
Some observers think the elections could do more harm than good.
Jeremy Shapiro, a researcher at the Brookings Institution think tank, wrote in an essay this week that with luck the elections will produce a stronger, more legitimate government.
"But there is great fear that fraud will delegitimize the government, that Election Day violence will broadcast insurgent strength, and that popular anger over the results will produce street protests and violence," he wrote.
Elections are not necessary to achieve the central U.S. aim of ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a haven for al-Qaida, Shapiro wrote, "and indeed put (that goal) at risk."
Thursday's voting under the best of circumstances is unlikely to lighten the load on American and allied combat forces. Almost eight years after the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban regime, the military mission is practically beginning anew, against a foe that draws strength from the Afghan government's weakness.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll found that most Americans believe the United States can meet its main goals, including aiding economic development and molding a credible and effective Afghan government, but very few said Thursday's elections were likely to produce such a government.
The poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is winning in Afghanistan; 36 percent say it is losing.
Just three years ago the U.S. had about 20,000 forces in the country. Today, it has triple that, on its way to 68,000 by year's end. Paradoxically, as the U.S. force has grown, so, too, has the influence and the military effectiveness of the Taliban, particularly in the southern part of the country.
That is why so much is riding on the outcome of Thursday's vote.
"If the next president — and I think this weighs most heavily on President Karzai — comes out of this election with questioned legitimacy then we are all in trouble," said J. Alexander Thier, an Afghanistan watcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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