09/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama and the Afghan Election: What It Means, What It Doesn't

While the Taliban failed to deliver on their threat to stop the presidential election in Afghanistan, turnout was down due to the intimidation factor, especially in the south, longtime hotbed of jihadist sentiment.

The Obama administration should be sighing with a sense of relief after the presidential election in Afghanistan. However, for those with nascent/encroaching nation-building fantasies, what happened with the Afghan election should be thoroughly disabusing.

The Taliban failed in their threat to halt the election, and were unable to pull off any of the promised spectacular attacks demonstrating a strong military capability. But that's to be expected, as some 300,000 US, NATO, and Afghan troops were fanned out across the county to prevent just that. Better to keep our eyes on the real world goals in Afghanistan: Denying it as a base to Al Qaeda, and moving on in the mission of dampening Islamic opposition to America.

While we slid by in this election, it would be a huge mistake to imagine that we are any closer to realizing persistent nation-building fantasies in Afghanistan. It's nowhere near a 20th century democracy, much less a 21st century democracy. Perhaps a 19th century democracy. But for the powerful forces ever insistent on dragging it back into the Dark Ages.

We won't have preliminary results in the Afghan presidential race until the weekend. Which should tell us a great deal about the state of democracy there, even absent a powerful jihadist threat.

But from what we do know so far, turnout is clearly lower than it was in the last election, in 2004, as a result of sporadic attacks taking place in much of the country. Turnout was apparently significantly lower in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban were dominant there until a recent US Marine offensive ordered by President Barack Obama.

The Taliban distributed leaflets in southern Afghanistan threatening "strong punishment" to those who vote.

Absent that offensive, not that the neoconservative critics will ever acknowledge this, it's quite likely that no national election could have taken place in Afghanistan. That is how far things had been allowed to slide under the Bush/Cheney Administration, and its fateful preoccupation with an essentially non-existent offensive threat from Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

It wasn't so much the results of the election itself that were in question but whether the Taliban could make good on their threat to thoroughly disrupt the election.

The Taliban launched some attacks in the run-up to the election around the country, but they were terrorist strikes only, nothing in main force, and caused fewer than 20 fatalities leading up to election day.

On election day, the Taliban did fail in their oft-pronounced mission to thoroughly disrupt the election. Their units did not dare to appear in main force and voting took place throughout the country. Turnout figures are not yet available, and preliminary results reportedly won't be known till the weekend, but turnout seems to have been high in the much more peaceful north and substantially lower in the south, where the Taliban have held sway prior to the recent US Marine offensive there.

Many attacks occurred throughout Afghanistan, but they were all of the hit-and-run, suicide bomb, rocket strike variety.

The Marines captured the key southern Afghanistan town of Dahaneh a week before the election.

President Hamid Karzai is attempting to avoid a run-off, but his support is greater in the south than it is in the north, where he is challenged by Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan foreign minister and a medical doctor. Abdullah was the longtime spokesman for the Northern Alliance, fighting alongside Ahmad Shah Mahsoud, in the war against the Soviet Union and against the Taliban.

And it is the south where the Pashtun Karzai has his greatest support. Meaning that former Massoud colleague Dr. Abdullah has an outside chance of getting into a run-off for the presidency in October.

This should actually not be surprising. Mahsoud was the most powerful and admired of the Afghan leaders to emerge from the war against the Soviet Union, which resulted in the Soviet Union becoming the late Soviet Union. He was the Afghan commander most feared by the Soviets, and was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives masquerading as journalists two days before the 9/11 attacks. The assassination was designed to remove the strongest potential US ally in Afghanistan in the likely event that America came after the Taliban after 9/11.

Which, since Karzai was George W. Bush's man, a regular visitor to the White House and constant video conferencer with W, which he certainly is not with Obama, raises the question of why Abdullah is not Obama's man in Afghanistan.

It seems largely to be a question of inertia, and of ethnicity. Karzai is in place and has forged powerful warlord alliances, he is Pashtun, the country's major ethnicity, Abdullah is part Tajik and Pashtun.

And Obama's way is not about arbitrarily designating foreign leaders as his man in wherever.

The Taliban's central leadership pledged to foil the vote across the country, though some local Taliban leaders signaled otherwise.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said that by participating, Afghans would help "bring fresh vigour to the country's political life, and ultimately reaffirm their commitment to contribute to the peace and prosperity of their nation."

US and NATO troops sought to clear the Taliban from their historic stronghold of Kandahar on the day before the election, as seen in this Al Jazeera report.

Opinion polls suggested going in to the election that support for Karzai was at around 45%, with his former foreign minister Abdullah in second place with 25%.

Last week, ironically, Karzai's brother said that Taliban commanders had agreed not to target the August 20th presidential election. But that was disputed by an official Taliban spokesman at the time, and turned out -- as it were -- to be not entirely true.

As we concern ourselves with the turnout, another matter slides away.

For how clean the election is, however, is another matter. Karzai was said to be engaged in vote-buying and log-rolling with warlords. Shocking, I know. Especially since Abdullah himself was the principal spokesman of an alliance of warlords, in the form of the Northern Alliance.

New US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army three-star general, visited Mazar-e-Sharif on election eve in this Al Jazeera footage. Mazar, once a key Soviet base, was the last major Afghan city to fall to the Taliban, and the first to be retaken by the Afghan Northern Alliance and US Special Forces after 9/11.

While most NATO member troops in Afghanistan don't engage in offensive operations against the Taliban, leaving that mainly to American and Afghan forces, they all worked to secure election sites.

Recent operations, just days ahead of the election, by U.S. Marines and other NATO forces in the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the southern part of the country were designed to clear and hold sectors that have long been in the Taliban grip, and free up the population to vote.

Just a day before the election, US and NATO forces were working to secure Kandahar, the founding city of Taliban, as you see in the Al Jazeera story, for the conduct of the presidential election.

These efforts, herculean as they were, did bear fruit. But that didn't stop the turnout, in the face of death threat leaflets from the Taliban, and harassing attacks throughout election day, from being significantly than it was during the last Afghan presidential election in 2004.

Against this backdrop of US efforts to create a nation-state, we see greater, and more heartening, progress in Pakistan.

The Pakistani Army offensive against the Taliban, prompted by Obama, has stopped the advance of the Pakistani Taliban. And after months of fighting, most of the more than two million internal refugees have been able to return home.

The sense of grave emergency that existed a few months ago in Pakistan has been abated.

And with the US missile strike against Pakistan's principal Taliban leader, Baitullah Mahsud, having resulted in his death early this month, the Taliban movement inside the world's only Islamic nuclear power is in disarray, with multiple reports of not only political infighting, but lethal infighting.

These relative successes, achieved as the result of extraordinary effort, should impress upon us how difficult and complex the task is in a part of the world we are only now beginning to understand.

America's long-term goal is to train a much larger Afghan Army, the current recruits of which are shown here.

America has never been a successful sort of imperial power, notwithstanding the hopes of many on the right and fears of many on the left.

It's not in the American nature, which is more geared to pragmatism and success achieved in the short term, not a long schoolboy watch on the battlements of some romanticized empire.

Our appropriate mission in that part of the world is not to remake it in our own image, for that is well-nigh impossible. It is, rather, as Obama has stated repeatedly, to ensure that Islamic jihadists such as those who attacked America on 9/11 are unable to group in operational bases and plan to act in our strategic detriment.

To the extent that we lose sight of that fundamental, achievable goal, and imagine that the mission is something else, something almost certainly not achievable, is to indulge in politico-military fantasy.

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