Female supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai during a rally in Kabul, Afghanistan

Female supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai during a rally in Kabul, Afghanistan Massoud Hossaini/AP

Who Will Be Afghanistan’s Next President?

As the votes are counted, the U.S. is hopeful that the winner will continue to support American interests in Afghanistan. By Michael Hirsh

With the Afghan presidential vote still being tallied, U.S. officials aren't saying much publicly. They fear that any statement perceived as an American endorsement will sully the leading candidates, raising suspicions that they are stooges of Washington. That's a risky prospect after more than a decade of often-harsh U.S. occupation. But privately senior Obama administration officials are delighted that the main vote getters, for now, are considered among the most able and internationalized officials in Afghanistan.

Among them is Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank technocrat who is respected internationally for his intellect (he's among the top 100 "global thinkers," says Foreign Policy magazine); Abdullah Abdullah, a former close friend of legendary Afghan freedom fighter and U.S. ally Ahmad Shah Massoud and a medical doctor with a reputation for toughness and integrity; and Zalmai Rassoul, who despite being seen as an ally of the cantankerous and corruption-tainted outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, is also a widely respected official with vast international experience (like Abdullah, he is a former foreign minister). If the leader gets less than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will take place.

All three, but particularly Ghani and Abdullah, have been deeply involved in building post-Taliban Afghanistan from the start, and both are fervent advocates of the pending bilateral security agreement with the United States, which Karzai has refused to sign. "They were the two people principally responsible for engaging the international community from 2002," James Dobbins, President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told National Journal, while being careful to say he was not endorsing any candidate. "They carried the full burden of introducing Afghanistan to world and the world to Afghanistan."

Ghani, who negotiated the BSA, delivered up a sophisticated, confident and hopeful analysis of Afghanistan's future in an interview with National Journal last May. He warned that unless there is a consensus among the "political elites" after the election, it could lead to political chaos and possibly a coup. The key question after the electoral results, he said, will be "how does the loser acknowledge the winner? The legitimacy of the next election is going to come from the loser."

All of a sudden, it appears that he, Abdullah and Rassoul may well be the ones who put that proposition to the test.

Despite some suspicions of fraud, the apparent popularity of Ghani, Abdullah and Rassoul in a huge turnout marred by surprisingly little violence may well be the most hopeful thing to happen in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. If any of them can form a multi-ethnic government, and the Afghan security forces can continue to hold the center against the Taliban, then less rather than more international assistance could be required in the years to come—and get Afghanistan out of the headlines, to the relief of Washington.

A senior administration official said the election was "head and shoulders" more successful than previous elections in other trouble spots like Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. "Not just in administration and preparation [of the vote] but the in quality of the turnout, the intensity of the media coverage, the level of interest by the constituencies, the candidates' travel around the countries, the participation in rallies," he said. It was also a distinct improvement over the fraud-marred vote in 2009, when Karzai was accused of stealing the election from Abdullah.

The relative lack of violence underscored a positive trend that has been largely drowned out by the horror stories of recent violent incidents, including the slaughter of nine people in a posh hotel in Kabul and the shooting of two AP journalists, one fatally, by a police officer. Despite that, a number of experts say, the Afghan security forces are actually beginning to congeal as an effective force, and the Taliban have failed to mount traditional attacks, having to resort to one-off acts of terror. And those forces are Abdullah's pride and joy; it was he who first laid out plans for a new Afghan army in January of 2002 to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. But, distracted by their ambitions for Iraq and unhappy about the idea of "nation-building" in Afghanistan, they demurred at first. It required the surprise return of the Taliban and to finally provoke Washington to action.

If the security agreement is signed, the new government may have enough firepower to stand off the Taliban with a residual international force left behind after America's planned withdrawal at the end of the year. Still, Ghani worries about the effects of what he called the American-generated "security-developmental complex" in Afghanistan and other countries the U.S. has occupied – a deliberately ironic echo of Eisenhower's famous warning against a "military industrial complex." "Every place except Japan and Germany where the U.S. has engaged in security assistance, the military has taken charge," he said. Ghani noted, however, that Afghanistan does not have a tradition of military coups; even the Taliban, in 1992, turned the administration of the country over to politicians.

Perhaps, this time, they will be the right politicians.