Afghanistan’s Sept. 28 presidential election provides some promising evidence of long-term political progress, even as violence and terrorist acts continue. The United States is trying to find an exit, characteristically without any disciplined long-term planning.
This struggle to find a reasonably responsible, acceptable diplomatic route for departure reflects subtle but sustained and strong sentiment among Americans that the involvement has surely gone on long enough. That sentiment includes the White House.
This vote is only the initial round, designed to narrow the field. The fact the election took place at all is significant.
Initial media reports on the election stress low turnout, and Taliban intimidation and violent attacks designed to disrupt, but the total picture is decidedly much more mixed. Government forces thwarted a major planned attack in Kabul.
Context is important. Afghanistan has no established history of formal representative elections, Western-style rule of law or reliable national government. Local tribal leaders remain important, powerful, traditionally lethal in armed conflict.
The earlier election held in 2014 represents a much more significant benchmark of progress in Afghanistan. Turnout of approximately 60% of eligible voters was high, despite Taliban intimidation and violence. The national election commission testified corruption was much reduced from the 2009 presidential election
Incumbent President Hamid Karzai could not run for reelection again. World Bank veteran Ashraf Ghani was victorious among a field of eight candidates.
With the election, Afghanistan completed a peaceful democratic transition in leadership. This is an historic first. Ghani is running for reelection this year.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for 2014 violence, but some attackers may actually have been from the Haqqani network, an affiliated group close to al-Qaeda. Media commentary simplifies by automatically assigning all attacks to the Taliban.
Despite policy disagreements and insurgent attacks, institutional ties between Afghanistan and the U.S. strengthened. In July 2012, Afghanistan and the U.S became formal allies. This relationship goes beyond the long-term but limited multilateral effort to stabilize the nation.
As a result, Afghanistan joined 14 other nations in the distinctive, special category of Strategic Partner of the U.S. These include Argentina, Australia, Israel and Japan. Other partners are notably stronger economically, and more stable politically, than Afghanistan.
The bilateral partnership brings closer cooperation encompassing regular delivery of military equipment, supplies and weapons. This in turn becomes more important as the insurgency persists.
President Karzai and U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the alliance, then jointly attended a conference in Tokyo where donor nations pledged $16 billion. Foreign aid is perennially unpopular among the American people, yet remains an important source of political leverage as well as economic progress.
The long and frustrating nature of the South Asia struggle can mask such positive changes as reasonably honest elections and growing participation of women. Despite lack of infrastructure, technology is spreading steadily. Cellphones and the internet, as well as traditional television, are now features of isolated communities.
History is instructive. While the disastrous Soviet military invasion and consequent defeat in the 1980s is well known, the more complex long-term involvement of Britain is generally neglected.
Through the 19th century, sizable British military expeditions experienced frustration in Afghanistan. However, London eventually was reasonably successful with Kabul through economic aid, military efforts and - above all - astute diplomacy.
With our military withdrawal from Afghanistan, economic and diplomatic tools become primary. Americans and Afghans must recognize the latter ultimately determine - and face responsibility for - their country.
Meanwhile, political and economic freedom spread.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.