KABUL — The days leading up to Afghanistan’s presidential election this month were full of headline-grabbing Taliban attacks: Gunmen and bombers assaulted the election commission headquarters, the luxury Serena Hotel and the American charity Roots of Peace.
But on voting day, the country seemed unusually calm, prompting Afghan politicians to speculate that the Taliban had intentionally allowed the election to proceed.
“I don’t think the other side put too much pressure,” said Hedayat Amin Arsala, a presidential candidate. “They even prevented some people from attacking.”
The statistics tell another story. Data released Monday by the U.S. military in Kabul show that April 5 was, in fact, an unusually violent day, spiking far above the norm, although falling 36 percent short of the peak number of attacks during the 2009 election, one of the bloodiest days of the war.
Of the 286 insurgent attacks during this election, the vast majority (226) occurred in eastern Afghanistan, followed by 21 in the Kandahar area of southern Afghanistan, 17 in the west, 14 in the north, seven in the Helmand region and just one in Kabul.
Because the U.S. military does not have the footprint across the country it once had for first-hand reporting, it collected those figures from Afghan authorities.
Of the serious violence, most was what is known as “direct fire” or gun fights. There were 38 of those incidents. Sixteen attacks were by “indirect fire,” meaning rockets or mortar shells, and five improvised explosive devices (IEDs) exploded.
These figures do not include violence that occurred during operations by Afghan special forces, which are not tracked by the U.S. three-star command in Kabul.
The violence took a toll on the Afghan soldiers and police officers who deployed in force to guard polling centers and protect voters. Seventeen members of the Afghan security forces were killed and 58 others were wounded.
But the highest losses were suffered by the Taliban. The insurgency lost 141 fighters, and 33 others were wounded in action, according to these reports. There were no U.S. casualties.
The violence did not prevent voters from turning out in large numbers. The election commission estimates that 7 million people voted, more than in the 2009 election but fewer than in 2004, the first presidential election after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
A U.S. military spokesman praised the Afghan security forces for protecting voters and keeping the casualty count relatively low given the high number of attacks.
This month, even with the spike of election-day violence, there have been 35 percent fewer attacks than in April 2013, the spokesman said.
Afghan authorities agree with the assessment that the election unfolded better than they had expected. But their violence numbers differ from those of the coalition. Afghan army spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said that 690 insurgent attacks occurred on election day, most of them minor small-arms engagements.
Insurgent activity here fluctuates wildly, but the spike on election day still stands out, even compared to previous violent periods. That result has become politically relevant for the country as it looks forward to a possible second-round runoff between the two front-runners, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.
U.S. military officials worry that a second round could attract even more violence by the Taliban, this time with a better sense of how Afghan forces are arrayed around polling stations and how election staff members and ballots travel to and from those sites.
In Afghanistan, where even a good day can be bad, a bad day could be tragic.