March 28

Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College and the author of “Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan.” Ronald E. Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.

U.S. strategic interests will be enormously affected by the outcome of Afghanistan’s presidential elections. With the vote for Hamid Karzai’s replacement looming, as well as elections for provincial councils, it is time to set realistic expectations and make sure our actions relate to our interests. Informed, patient diplomacy by the United States would go far in ensuring that the substantial gains made in Afghanistan over the past decade, at great cost, are not lost due to haste.

Regardless of the efforts of the international community or the improving electoral bodies in Afghanistan, the April 5 elections will be corrupt, filled with fraud and marred by violence. Election officials and monitors have been targeted. Paradoxically, this reflects the success of the previous four elections in Afghanistan: Local power brokers, commanders and the Taliban are so invested in the electoral system and the resources that it generates that they are using both legitimate and illegitimate approaches to win or disrupt the voting.

At this point, the United States needs to understand that what is most important in these upcoming elections is Afghanistan’s long-term stability. This is best achieved through a peaceful transfer of power to a new president with authority recognized broadly by Afghans. Democracy is, of course, important, and beyond a point its neglect would undermine stability, but the priority should not be on holding perfect elections. Afghans are likely to tolerate many types of procedural irregularities and small-scale fraud. Widespread violence and a breakdown of the tenuous political balance are likely only if these manipulations are seen as overtly propelling into office a candidate with little national support. Instead, Afghans are primarily preparing for both a national and, through provincial elections, local long-term renegotiation of political power. This is the challenge that the international community needs to focus on.

The power transfer started by these elections is likely to take months. A run-off is likely. Time will be needed to resolve disputed vote counts. Karzai needs an honorable exit, but he must exit. New ministers and governors will be appointed. Power brokers are working to deliver votes to reaffirm their local authority. Even the most democratic-looking youth groups have been largely co-opted by the political elite into these machinations to trade votes for influence with several potential bidders.

The United States and other international actors need to shape their initial response carefully in the days after the voting. For example, turnout is not likely to say much about the long-term effects of these elections. In an honor-based system, accusations of fraud are an attack on one’s prestige as much on his politics, which will lead to more such accusations. These reports are not as important as whether leaders decide to use these complaints as political tools in an attempt to overturn the elections.

How the international community responds to such accusations is critical. The initial U.S. response should be more focused on maintaining calm than on assessing how free the elections were; it should leave space for Afghan reactions to dominate. All of the political steps that are bound to follow Saturday’s voting must be Afghan-driven, but this does not contradict the need for a strong U.S. diplomatic role in maintaining the peace. Afghan voters and leaders still care deeply about whether their political system appears democratic to outside observers, and they care about electing a leader the international community will do business with. Many will seek to know whom the United States “really supports”; while the Obama administration should remain neutral, we should not expect our show of neutrality to be believed. It would also have an effect if U.S. officials were to speak strongly against a candidate, as many Afghans would not vote for someone whose election would mean the end of U.S. or international aid. Washington would be wise to prepare for a role as a quiet referee and potential mediator in the negotiations over fraud that is likely to emerge.

This will be even more challenging given the recent attacks on the Serena Hotel, where many international monitors were staying, and the Kabul election headquarters. Monitors are essential to reassure both the international community and Afghans that the voting has been the decisive element in the selection of the new president.

It will take generations for democracy to take root in Afghanistan. But the fact that these elections are being held reflects the way that democratic practices have begun to become a part of the Afghan political system. The United States should continue to declare its support for the most transparent and clear elections possible, but the inevitable failure to achieve a perfectly free and fair vote should not trump the primary U.S. goal of a peaceful transfer of power. Without such a peaceful transition, there is little hope for the future of Afghan democracy anyway.