On April 5, seven million Afghans -- over half of those eligible to vote -- stood in long lines in the city rain, in the deserts, and in mountain villages to vote for a new president. It was remarkable. Some polling sites ran out of ballots, others remained open well past the official 5 pm closing time. There is no electricity in most villages, and staying out after dark can be dangerous. According to General Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, the Taliban launched 690 attacks on the day of the vote, killing some. But the voting went on. The results won’t be revealed until April 24, after which voters can officially register complaints. A second round of voting, if necessary (and according to the ten percent of the votes that have been counted, it may be), will take place in late May.

Although the identity of the next president is uncertain, Afghans know for sure that it will not be Hamid Karzai, who has held power for 12 years. In keeping with his country’s 2004 constitution, he agreed to step down after his second term was up. That has never happened before in Afghanistan, and it marks the true introduction of democracy in this shattered land.

The first of three leading candidates is Zalmai Rassoul, an elegant French-trained doctor who is now Karzai’s foreign minister and whom Karzai apparently supports. Perhaps reaching out to younger and urban voters -- as well as women voters, who make up 35 percent of the electorate -- Rassoul picked a woman, Habiba Sorobi, a Hazara and the former governor of Bamian Province, as one of his two running mates. Throughout the campaign, he has called for closer ties to the West, economic development, and security.

More important than Rassoul’s accomplishments, though, is his lineage. Rassoul is the nephew of King Amanullah Khan, who was revered for freeing Afghanistan from the British in 1919 -- an important legacy in a country where, after over 30 years of war, many yearn for the return of a strong but distant monarch and for a more peaceful time. For his part, Khan tried to modernize Afghanistan, but he pressed too hard and angered conservative tribal leaders, who were horrified that Queen Soraya showed her face in public and wore sleeveless Western dresses. Khan had to flee Afghanistan in 1929 and died in exile in Zurich in 1960.

Given his family ties, Rassoul can expect to do well among royalists and conservative tribal leaders in southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar, from which all Pashtun leaders, including the kings, have hailed. But a mark against him is that, like all Afghan aristocrats, his first language is Persian, not Pashtu, which is the language of most of his constituents. He is also bachelor, which makes many uncomfortable in this conservative land.

Another contender and, at the moment in the lead, is Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former ally of famed Mujahedeen guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Abdullah was also Karzai’s first foreign minister. He hails from the Panjshir Valley, a Tajik stronghold, and was a member of the Northern Alliance, which was allied with the United States against the Taliban. His father is Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, but his mother is Tajik and his first language is Persian. Afghans believe that Abdullah is therefore “more” Tajik than Pashtun. It was thus surprising when he managed to came in second to Karzai, a Pashtun, in the tainted 2009 election. It is also why Abdullah, although he is the most experienced, natural, and well-known politician running, will not likely win. His supporters are mainly Tajiks and Persian speakers from the north, who make up the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. He will win in Kabul, which is a Tajik city, and Herat, which is also a Tajik city.

The third contender is Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, also Pashtun and currently in second place. He has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, is a former World Bank official, is married to a Lebanese Christian, and served as finance minister from 2002 to 2004. He lived for years in the Washington, D.C. area. He is energetic and has said that he will stamp out corruption and push for economic development in the country’s south -- Pashtun country. Like Karzai, he has promised to release all prisoners held by the United States at Bagram Airbase, north of Kabul.

His supporters include the young who appreciate his education, his pledges against corruption, and his promises to make Afghanistan more modern. He also polls well among women, some urban dwellers, and Pashtuns in eastern Afghanistan, which is a non-royalist area. Still, he is seen as arrogant, a man who lived in the West while most Afghans suffered through the Soviets and the Taliban. He is almost too much of an outsider in this deeply religious land. He ran in 2009 and got less than ten percent of the vote, a problem he has tried to address by picking as a running mate the controversial General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek who committed war crimes in the 1980s and against the Taliban. That should bring him the entire Uzbek vote and thus some support in the north.

To understand who will most likely win, it is worth looking back to 2009. Karzai won, but it was not a fair fight -- and the fault was not his alone. In his memoirs, Robert Gates, former secretary of defense, wrote that the United States tried a “clumsy and failed putsch” to get rid of Karzai just before the election. Karzai, feeling himself undermined by his one-time backer, sought out the tribal leaders he had wooed over the years. They, angered by American meddling, assured his victory. His machine is still in place and some observers think he will use it to try to deliver the country’s powerbrokers -- and therefore to country – to Rassoul. With Rassoul in third place, though, that seems unlikely.

Of course Pakistan, which backs the Taliban, is opposed to any Pashtun royalist in power -- no royalist (indeed, no Pashtun) has ever accepted the current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even Karzai supported annexation of the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, which had been signed over by a weakened Afghanistan to the British in 1893. Pakistan is watching this election closely and will likely continue to fight through the Taliban after it.

The United States, for its part, is officially neutral. But it may well prefer Ghani, who is very Western and has good contacts in Washington. It is also not opposed to Abdullah, who speaks English and is a familiar face, someone with whom the United States has worked for decades. Above all, though, the United States wants a free and prosperous Afghanistan, a nation that is not dependent on foreign aid and will never again become a haven for Islamist extremists. And it cannot get that with clumsy attempts to influence the election. At any rate, all the presidential candidates, unlike Karzai, have said that they will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, allowing U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

Afghanistan has been at war for over 30 years. Over a million people are said to have died in the Afghan-Soviet war. And many thousands have died since then. The April 5 election marks the beginning of the end of that long nightmare. Peace is a long way off. But Afghans have shown that democracy, something the Taliban call a Western religion, and Islam, are compatible and that it is an option Afghans would like to pursue. That message will resonate far beyond the country’s borders. 

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  • JERE VAN DYK is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He covered the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s for The New York Times. He is the author of Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban and is a consultant on Afghanistan and Pakistan for CBS.
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