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Longing for democracy

Florian Weigand / gdJune 14, 2014

Afghans have shown their longing for democratic change. The US should not commit the same mistake in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq by withdrawing hastily, says DW's Florian Weigand.

Florian Weigand
Image: DW/P. Henriksen

"Ballots, not bullets" - an unknown graffiti artist spray-painted this slogan in colorful letters, along with a picture of dove, on a wall in Afghanistan. The image and slogans have symbolic power. Despite a very real danger of death, the Afghans flocked again to the polls.

During the first round of the presidential poll on April 5, no candidate was able to garner the required number of votes to win an outright majority. The runoff was thus necessary. By casting their votes again in the second round of elections, the Afghans have ushered in a new era in the country. For the first time in the history of the country, a peaceful and democratic transfer of power has been made possible. And the best thing about this transformation is that the people of this war-torn country have done it by using all modern means such as graffiti and social media.

There is no question about the fact that regardless of the outcome of the election, Afghanistan is no longer the same country as it used to be 15 years ago under the Taliban rule.

It is hard not to feel emotional about this historic moment. The future of Afghanistan looks brighter in comparison to other countries in the Muslim world. Syria is entangled in a protracted civil war; in Iraq, Islamist forces are advancing to Baghdad; in Pakistan, the Taliban managed to attack the country's biggest airport in Karachi; whereas in Egypt and Libya, the hope generated by the Arab Spring has long been vanished.

However, a closer look shows that Afghans still have a long and bumpy road ahead of them. Corruption, a weak economy and tribal structures pose major obstacles to the development of a modern state based on the rule of law.

Both former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and his rival, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani have a good chance of winning the poll. But many also fear a close outcome could tempt the contenders to rig the vote in their favor. However, a president that comes to power through electoral fraud would be a weak head of state.

The security situation remains tense. Although the Taliban failed to launch a major attack, more than 150 minor assaults were reported during voting hours. But the fact that more violence had been expected should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness from the Taliban.

Certainly, the Afghan security forces did their best to protect voters and polling stations. However, recently, in neighboring Pakistan - with its highly efficient army and spy agency - the extremists were able to fight their way through a well protected airport. An assault of similar scale would have been possible in Afghanistan where security forces are believed to be weaker than in Pakistan.

One can therefore assume that negotiations with the militants took place to reduce the level of violence in the country and this was likely achieved by promising them something in return. The Taliban remain a force to be reckoned with in the region.

The international community must continue to play an active role. Recent developments in Iraq show that a hasty withdrawal may lead to short-term political gains on the domestic front, but also to a geopolitical disaster. Washington and its allies should rethink their decision to leave the country by the end of 2016.