Afghanistan's first ever presidential elections were an unmitigated disaster - if you're a hard-core Taliban fighter.
Far from staying away from the polls, the Afghan voters came out in droves. Instead of being intimidated by threats of violence, villagers walked for miles to the nearest voting station to give democracy a try. Worst of all, from a terrorist's perspective, the Taliban were unable to deliver on their promise to spread election-day mayhem. In fact, it was the calmest day in recent memory.
As the top US commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, put it, the Taliban "didn't show."
"The election was a psychological defeat for the terrorists," says Zalmai Rassoul, chairman of the Afghan National Security Council and a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai. "[Osama bin Laden's deputy] Ayman al-Zawahiri said that half of Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban, but if that was true then how could we hold the election in Zabul, in Kandahar, in Helmand, in Khost, in all the regions where the Taliban are active? This was a big defeat."
History may mark Oct. 9 as the death knell of the Taliban as a military force. Or maybe not. This is Afghanistan, after all, where violent guerrilla movements have a way of surging and receding with the changing seasons. But while most Afghans agree that the Taliban are increasingly unpopular, and clearly unable to deliver on their threats, some intelligence officers and former Taliban themselves say that it is too early to declare victory. Finishing off this three-year insurgency may require equal measures of amnesty, negotiation, and occasional shows of military might - and more important, a stable government in Kabul free of corruption.
Whether the Taliban stayed home, or the Afghan government security kept them there, election day was undeniably peaceful. There were sporadic attacks in some districts - including an armed attack on a convoy carrying ballot boxes in Uruzgan Province, in which three Afghan police were killed.
But the main story of election day was what didn't happen. A fully loaded fuel truck with explosives packed in the tires didn't explode outside a polling station in Kandahar. Instead, it was stopped by Afghan forces on the road from the Pakistani border. In Khost Province, a 12-year-old boy didn't carry explosives into a busy polling station. Police arrested him before he left his house, acting on a tip-off from neighbors.
And a group of Taliban commanders, meeting in the village of Charasiab, an hour outside Kabul, did not fire hundreds of rockets onto Kabul or nearby polling stations in Logar Province. Instead, they were arrested on the morning of election day, after a four-hour gun battle with Afghan special Task Force 333, an elite group in the Afghan National Army.
"Even in a wedding, where there are so many people, you have more arguments than we had on voting day," says Shahmahmud Miakhel, deputy interior minister.
Like most Afghan officials, Mr. Miakhel says the credit for the peace rests on the strong security plan and the coordination between police, US-led coalition forces, NATO peacekeepers, and the Afghan National Army. Movement into and out of Kabul was restricted, and most cars were forbidden to travel the streets.
But Afghan intelligence officers and former Taliban say the peace may also have been due to other factors, including battle fatigue in the Taliban ranks and recent overtures by President Karzai to the fighters to disarm and join the political mainstream.
"Most of the local ordinary Taliban are tired of fighting, they are eager to come back to the country and live here in peace," says Al-Hajj Mullah Abdul Samad Khaksar, the former Taliban interior minister who has since renounced the group. "But they are worried that if they give up their weapons, then the Americans will surround them and search their houses and send them to Guantánamo, so they keep fighting."
But they don't fight very hard, Mullah Khaksar adds, and that tells him that the Taliban have lost the support of local people. It is in this moment of weakness, he says, that the next government should offer amnesty to those low-level Taliban who haven't committed war crimes, and a promise to higher-level Taliban leaders that they will receive fair justice in Afghan courts. But most important, the new government needs to be unified, capable, and clean.
"If the new government is strong and stable, then these people will be finished very soon," says the mullah. "But if this is the same government that we had before, if it is weak, and if the administration is incompetent, then these people will be stronger."
Another theory is that the Pashtun-dominated Taliban did not want to risk upsetting an anticipated victory for Karzai, a Pashtun, over his main challenger, a Tajik. Then there's the official Taliban line given by spokesmen Abdul Latif Hakimi to Agence France Presse Tuesday that the guerrillas didn't target polling stations "in order to avoid bloodshed of innocent Muslims."
One senior Afghan intelligence official, who spoke with the Monitor on condition of anonymity, says that Afghanistan's greatest threat now is from foreign fighters and from local commanders - especially those involved in the thriving drug trade. Afghanistan now supplies 70 percent of the world's opium.
Referring to a massive suicide car-bomb attack outside an Afghan police training center in Kabul last month, in which 10 were killed, including three American security contractors, the intelligence officer says, "That was Al Qaeda's work. A simple Talib couldn't have done that."
He believes that Al Qaeda will remain active in southern Afghanistan. But urban violence will be the work of local Afghan commanders as the next stage of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process challenges their power.
Compared to Afghanistan's other threats, the Taliban are relatively simple to neutralize, says Mullah Khaksar. The best way to convince the Taliban to come in from the cold is to talk with their tribal leaders, whose influence is traditionally much stronger than that of any mullah or foreign militant.
"Taking military action should be the last resort," says the mullah. "If I were interior minister again, I would talk to the tribal leaders and through them try to talk with the opposition to bring them over to our side."
Unfortunately, he adds, many members of the Karzai government are Afghan émigrés who don't have experience on how Afghan tribal systems work.
"Once I met an Afghan foreigner who said to me, 'I'm lost in Afghan politics.' " Mullah Khaksar laughs. "I told him, 'You have been away from Afghanistan 25 years. I have been here my whole life.' Afghans have one point of view in the morning, they change to another point of view in the night, and they change again the next day. Only those who have lived here their whole lives can understand it."