Testing times for Afghanistan

All elections are important for their results, but some also because they are held at all. Afghanistan's presidential elections are no small step forward for a war-ravaged country where the electoral processes which other democracies take for granted are opposed violently by religious fanatics and political obscurantists. Yet, seven million Afghans have dared the Taleban and cast their votes in the nation's first democratic transfer of presidential power. They are choosing a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally obliged to step down - itself proof of the triumph of the rule of law over the violent rules to which Afghans have been subjected.

Although marred by allegations of fraud, the elections testify to the widening public acceptance of the legitimacy of the democratic process in a country where fierce tribal traditions and loyalties can deflect the free exercise of the franchise. The results will take time to be known, and Afghans are waiting to see whether there will be a run-off between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani. Yet, whoever wins, the election revealed the "zest and zeal" with which Afghans took to determining their national destiny, in the gently celebratory words of the Independent Election Commission. That in itself is a victory.

However, what the country can expect after the election results are declared is even more important. The key question is how the Afghan ground will react to the departure of international forces, currently scheduled for the end of 2014. Mr Karzai's refusal to sign a security agreement to keep foreign troops after this year raised fears of a full withdrawal of American forces.

Happily, the main presidential contenders have indicated that they are in favour of signing a deal that would keep some American troops, after the end of combat operations, to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and go after Al-Qaeda remnants.

A security pact is essential because a full withdrawal of US troops could lead to civil war. Indeed, in one prediction, almost a third of Afghan forces could desert if American forces were not to be around. Coupled with the insurrectionary activities of the Taleban in neighbouring Pakistan, there is a danger that an "Af-Pak" theatre of insecurity could destroy all the gains made during Mr Karzai's tenure, controversial though it was for its opulent corruption.

The Afghan presidential election will give the new leader not only the mandate but also the responsibility to ensure that the gains of democracy can be transformed into a victory for security and stability over the waiting forces of violence and disorder.