The Taliban minced no words in the leaflets they scattered across southern Afghanistan last weekend. In one of their missives, they threatened to cut off the noses and ears of anyone who dared to vote in Thursday's presidential elections. Another leaflet said that anyone whose fingers were stained with ink—a sign that they had voted—also risked disfigurement. A third said "respected residents" should think twice about entering polling booths, since they risked becoming "a victim of our operations." Don't vote, in other words, or we'll blow you up.
It was a stark message, but in one sense a very useful one. Sometimes, when one stares too long at Afghanistan, all one sees are tangled webs of complexity: hundreds of ethnic groups, dozens of languages, political clans pulled in different directions by corruption, drugs, and billions of dollars of Western aid. As a result, even people who have been there a long time have trouble defining whom, exactly, we are fighting against. The Taliban is sometimes described as an ideological force, sometimes as a loose ethnic coalition, sometimes as a band of mercenaries, men who fight because they don't have anything else to do. But perhaps with this election, we can now start to use a narrower definition: The Taliban are the people who want to blow up polling stations.
The threat is also useful in another sense: It reminds us of what we are fighting for—by which I don't mean "democracy" as such. After all, we are not trying to create some kind of Jeffersonian idyll in the rugged heart of Central Asia, but merely an Afghan government that is recognized as legitimate by the majority of Afghans—a government that can therefore prevent the country from turning back into a haven for terrorist training camps. If there were someone acceptable to all factions, we might presumably consider helping the Afghans restore the monarchy. For that matter, if the Afghans were willing to accept an appointed American puppet, we might, I'm guessing, consider that, too, at this point. But there isn't, and they won't. Which means that democratic elections—which the majority of Afghans support—are the only means of establishing any Afghan government's legitimacy. It isn't that we are setting the bar "too high" by holding elections in Afghanistan, it's that we don't have anything better to offer.
And that, of course, is also why the Taliban are trying to scare Afghanistan's voters. They won't be able to stop the elections altogether, and they won't be able shut down all the polling stations. But that isn't their intent: Their goal is to make the elections appear illegitimate, so that doubts about the president's right to rule haunt the winner throughout his term of office. If they can lower the turnout dramatically in the southern part of the country, if they can intimidate women and prevent them from voting at all, if they can cast a shadow over the fairness of the counting, and if they can therefore convince Afghans that the election was inconclusive, they will have achieved a great deal.
Without doubt, whoever wins will carry baggage. Hamid Karzai, the current president, has many detractors (who accuse him of corruption) and a few admirers (who think he is a conciliator). Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, is a brilliant economist but somewhat remote from ordinary Afghans. Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, Ramazan Bashardost, a former planning minister, and indeed all of the 41 candidates have their pluses and minuses, but that isn't the point: It doesn't matter who wins. It matter how he wins, and it matters that his victory is accepted by most Afghans.
The U.S. and NATO troops who will be guarding polling stations this week are crucial to that outcome. So are the efforts of Radio Free Afghanistan, which co-sponsored the country's first ever live, televised, presidential debate this week. (The radio station's director, Akbar Ayazi, described the process of persuading candidates to participate as so difficult, "I could take people to Mars probably by now").
All that pales, however, to the importance of what we do afterward. Our policy—the Western world's policy, the U.N. policy—must be to endorse and support whichever candidate emerges as the legitimate winner, lending him further credibility, weakening further the Taliban who opposed his election. We should do what we can (not much, I realize) to encourage Afghanistan's neighbors—Iran, Russia, Pakistan—to do the same.
And if, for any reason, a legitimate president does not emerge? Then the tangled webs will once again unfurl themselves, the clans and the tribes and the paid mercenaries will start choosing sides, the people who blow up polling stations will have gained credibility—and we will have to think hard about whether to stay in Afghanistan.