The April 5 Afghan presidential election is about to happen. The election commission has prepared the ballots, organized the polling places and kept an eye on the candidates to try to make sure none of them are breaking the campaign rules.
Although the Taliban have made it clear that it will do everything it can to disrupt the election, the number of polling places that are unlikely to open for security reasons will be a lot fewer than in the last election in 2009.
As there are nine candidates, probably none of them will receive more than 50 percent of the vote and thereby a second round, pitting the two top vote-getters against each other, will be necessary. The three leading candidates are the man President Hamid Karzai defeated in 2009 and former ministers of finance and foreign affairs. Assuming that both rounds go smoothly, there should be a new president in office by early summer.
But a lot can go wrong. Karzai says he is not supporting any particular candidate, but he persuaded one of his brothers not to run, and that brother immediately endorsed a candidate who is now widely believed to be Karzai's choice, someone over whom he might be able to have considerable influence. And major Taliban attacks, voter intimidation and fraud are all possible.
The stakes in this election are enormous. If it is seen by the Afghan people to be free and fair, it will be a huge step forward in the establishment of a new and stable government. If not, Afghanistan could once again descend into political chaos, greatly complicating its security, stability and economic progress.
The election comes at a time when many indicators of progress in Afghanistan are positive. The capabilities of its security forces have been steadily improving. GDP has grown about 9 percent annually since 2002. About 10.5 million Afghans are enrolled in schools, 40 percent of them girls. Sixty percent of Afghans have access to health facilities. There are 16 million subscribers to four mobile phone companies. The country has 50 TV stations. At last count, 472,000 Afghans were on Facebook.
The challenges are still profound, including poverty, corruption, drug trafficking and women's rights. And Afghanistan's future security is endangered by Karzai's refusal to sign an agreement under which NATO, including US, forces could continue past 2014 to assist the Afghan security forces with training and logistical support. All nine candidates say they will sign it, but until that happens Afghans will have less confidence in their future than otherwise.
Americans are understandably tired of the cost of our involvement with Afghanistan. The success or failure of this election will help decide whether we will continue to assist the Afghans move forward or instead speed our withdrawal and risk having Afghanistan descend back into a lawless country hospitable to terrorists.
Ted Eliot was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 1973-78. He lives in Sonoma.