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Afghan elections: What's at stake?

Voting today will test the legitimacy of the government and the credibility of the international counterinsurgency strategy.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2009

An Afghan woman casts her ballot at a polling centre in Herat, western Afghanistan Thursday.

Raheb Homavandi/REUTERS

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Kabul, Afghanistan

Under threat of Taliban intimidation and explosives, some Afghans made their way to the polls Thursday out of a sense of duty to country and desire for change.

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"I would even vote if a Taliban was here and put a gun to my head," says Ghulam Sarwar Hasanzada, a voter at a crowded polling station in western Kabul. "I'm proud of my country and proud to vote."

At one level, today's vote will help Afghans assess who has momentum – President Hamid Karzai, reformers, or the Taliban – in a country where the population often tries to side with the winner.

For the US and other Western nations, today's election comes with the potential of widespread fraud and violent disruptions, which could call into question the legitimacy of the Afghan government and foreign involvement with it.

"Afghans are interested in electing their own government, but the situation is not allowing them to. So for them, the legitimacy of their own government is at stake," says Thomas Ruttig, an Afghan expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "But it's also the image of the international community who came here to stabilize the country and to build up functional institutions, which was only successful to a limited extent."

It's too early for a countrywide assessment of the vote, but violence and technical problems hampered the process in parts of the country. In the capital, Kabul, morning voting levels appeared weaker than in past elections. At several polling stations visited, poll workers said the turnout was between 10 and 50 percent of what was expected. Insurgents detonated a car bomb before polls opened, fired five rockets into the city in the morning, and shot at a police station around noon. Traffic was light with businesses closed for the national holiday; some kites flew in the sky.

Nine rockets crashed into the contested southern city of Kandahar and security forces have found explosive devices in town, says a local journalist, adding that few voters came out in the morning. Meanwhile, large numbers of voters were at polling stations in the eastern city of Jalalabad, says local journalist Fahim Zarak, and in the northern city of Faryab, according to another.

A facet of counterinsurgency strategy

The current government faces a crisis of credibility and the international community fears these elections could deepen questions of legitimacy.

"The reason why we should care is that we need a credible government for the counterinsurgency effort to make any sense. Why are we putting all this money and treasure and loss of life to support a government that doesn't want to be anything but a kleptocracy?" says a top Western expert who cannot be named while serving as an international election observer.

Not everyone agrees that the credibility of today's process is so crucial. "Legitimacy is more shaped by the government's performance after the election," says another expert serving as an observer.

A two-man race

While 41 candidates stood for president, the race has consolidated into a two-way contest between Mr. Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

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