If Afghanistan’s politics were a stock market, one could make easy money with an investment strategy consisting of only one word: “sell.” Bad news is the norm, and good news is often a lie. And that is why the nation’s election to decide who should replace Hamid Karzai as president was so confusing: from the campaign through the first round of voting in early April, and right up to the runoff polls held June 15, the pessimists seemed to be proved wrong at every turn. The elections were the freest and fairest in Afghan history, and also the safest since the fall of the Taliban. A few days after polls closed, though, things started getting back to normal. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate who had entered the runoff with a clear lead, rejected the process before a single vote had been counted. To understand where Afghan politics is going, then, a reassessment of the past few months is in order.
Observers did have good reason to be upbeat before last week. The first round of the election was possibly the fairest in Afghan history -- not a big claim, given the lack of all but symbolic contests before 2001, but an important one nonetheless. The 2004 election was essentially a coronation for Karzai rather than a truly open contest. The 2009 election had to be postponed twice due to security concerns, and allegations of fraud turned that vote into a sour embarrassment for both Karzai (who believed the charges were an American plot to discredit him) and Abdullah (who withdrew from the runoff under heavy international pressure). By contrast, this year’s voting was held on schedule, and with far fewer security concerns than before. Judging by their track records of competence in high office and their moderate, inclusive campaigns, the two candidates who advanced to the runoff stage were probably the two best ones for Afghanistan, and for the world. That outcome had never been a given: initially, the field