The World from Berlin Afghans 'Gloomy about Future'

Millions in Afghanistan voted on Thursday despite widespread violence and Taliban intimidation. But, with turnout lower than it was at the 2004 ballot, many German commentators were disheartened by the latest vote, voicing concern about the country's unstable outlook and its fledgling democracy.

Millions defied Taliban threats and cast their votes in Afghanistan's second-ever democratic presidential election on Thursday, despite 26-deaths resulting from election-linked violence.

In total, voter turnout appeared weaker than in the country's first election in 2004. Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief electoral officer, told the Associated Press that 40-50 percent of Afghanistan's 15 million registered voters cast ballots, significantly below the 70 percent that voted last time. He added that 6,202 polling centers -- or 95 percent of those that had been planned -- stayed open during the 10-hour period in which votes were cast.

The results of the election remained unclear on Friday, with both incumbent President Hamid Karzai, the favorite, and his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, claiming victory. Election officials warned that it was too early to establish who had won. Initial results are not expected for several days and, in the event that no candidate corners more than 50 percent of the vote, a two-man runoff will be held.

Karzai praised Afghans for braving "rockers, bombs and intimidation" to cast their votes, according to AP. He added that militants had carried out 73 attacks in 15 provinces, particularly in the southern part of the country, where Karzai draws most of his support. There was reportedly less violence in the northern part of the country, where 4,500 German soldiers are deployed as part of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) in a mission that is deeply unpopular back home.

The vote has been tainted by several accusations of fraud, but Kai Eide, a top U.N. official in the country, told AP on Thursday that the election "seems to be working out well." However, the fraud allegations, combined with low turnout, could dent the legitimacy of the country's next president as he tries to improve conditions in a country wracked by rising levels of violence, a reinvigorated narcotics trade, widespread corruption and a feeble government.

In Fridays' papers, some German commentators see scope for optimism at the voters' courage, but many sounded a cautious note on the shaky post-electoral outlook for the country. Meanwhile, many turn their attention to the thorny issue of when the Bundeswehr, Germany's military forces, should come home.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"During yesterday's election, government officials in Afghanistan asked the media to not report on violence. … But it wasn't only the true extent of the violence that remained murky. The fact is that the handling of the votes also demands independent verification. It's hard to see anything positive in the fact that complaints about multiple voting and voter coercion were already piling up on the same day as the election. What is clear is that the enthusiasm sparked by the presidential election five years ago has given way to a climate of insecurity and anxiety".

"Despite the brave decision of many Afghans to defy the Taliban's threats and go to the voting stations, it is still hard to find excitement about the arrival of democracy. Ever since the downfall of the Taliban almost eight years ago, the Afghans have not been less gloomy about the future."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Even if the situation in Afghanistan during yesterday's election remained unclear, one thing was obvious: The overoptimistic expectation that everything will get better after the election is not going to be fulfilled. The Taliban has shown that it is now in a position to spread anxiety, fear and death throughout the entire country and that it is not going to let things calm down after a new president is chosen."

"More than anything, yesterday shows that there is an unpleasant truth in store for the Bundeswehr and, by extension, for German politics as well. The massive slaughter in Baghlan and the attacks in Kunduz and Chahar Dara show that northern Afghanistan has been infected by the virus of the rebellion as much as the southern part of the country. Military experts would call what the Taliban has done there a 'show of force.' And it is no accident that it is happening in the north."

"In response to the beefed-up presence of US troops in the south, the Taliban and al-Qaida are looking for a place to side-step into. And they know for a fact that the Germans are the weakest link in the chain …"

"If the Bundeswehr wants to stop the Taliban from flocking to the area it is responsible for, it would make sense to give serious thought to reinforcing the troops. To do this, politicians will have to finally give all their cheap populism a rest, as the only thing it has done is make the Afghanistan mission unpopular among Germany's population. In terms of both personnel and war material, the Bundeswehr must be empowered to successfully react to the new security situation. Otherwise, the lives of German soldiers will be in danger."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"The fact that voting took place in Afghanistan alone in a time of terror is in itself a sign of success. The fact that voters were not frightened off by the dangers deserves admiration. That the future president will be in an improved position in terms of moral legitimacy is to be expected. And that the Taliban has suffered a political setback is to be welcomed."

"But the Western countries -- that are expending their wealth and blood in Afghanistan -- should not expect any loud thanks for their actions. The presence of Western security forces there can only be for emergency measures. Once they have worn out their welcome and fulfilled their military mandate, the helpers from afar need to pack up and withdraw."

"If you think back, the war began because the Taliban allowed al-Qaida to use Afghanistan for a base for its 9/11 attacks on the United States. The war ended with the Petersburg Conference and the plan for an Afghanistan without terrorism that was internally stabilized and at peace with its neighbors. Civilizing measures, such as improving the general state of education and ending the poppy culture, were -- and continue to be -- only secondary aims."

"Over time, though, it has become much more about what the Americans call AfPak(Afghanistan-Pakistan) and how events on the Afghan side of the border are contributing to to the breakup of the Pakistani state. Pakistan has replaced Afghanistan as the main source of worry, whether it involves the role of the military or the security of its nuclear weapons. For the Islamists, the latter is the goal of all goals. The Islamists in Afghanistan are fighting to get their hands on the their keys, and the Americans are fighting in Pakistan to keep them safe."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"No one can realistically guess when things will be stable enough in Afghanistan for NATO and the allies to be able to pull out with a good conscience. And there's no doubt that that has to be the precondition for leaving that country to itself. Of course, the alliance could just decide to withdraw at a time of its choosing, but that would just be admitting defeat. And the very people that the mission means to help will be the same people to suffer the consequences."

"People who are juggling with deadlines are putting themselves under pressure and falling into the Taliban's trap. It's understandable that politicians buckle under the pressure of public demands to know how long a dangerous mission like this will last. They don't behave responsibly, though, because in doing so they mislead both the voters and the soldiers at risk in Afghanistan. The only truly honest response would be to say that they just don't know how long it will take."

-- Josh Ward


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