What does success for the United Nations look like in Afghanistan?

The White House put it best during a press briefing last week forecasting Saturday’s primary elections:

“This election process is Afghan-owned… The Afghan security forces are in the lead country-wide. The leaders and staff of the electoral institutions are all Afghan. And the campaign period over the past two months was full of open and responsible debate among the candidates. But it will be up to the Afghan people to choose the future direction of their country.”

Saturday’s election — the first democratic transfer of power from one elected president to another since the Taliban’s ousting in 2001 — barely showed a visible fingerprint from the institution which largely built its democratic capacities.

That’s exactly how it should be.

For years, the UN — primarily through the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) — has been advising on election-related matters and providing capacity building and technical support. With strong backing from the U.S., together with other UN member states, the UN has trained Afghan election and security officials to be able to take on a successful, self-sustained democratic process.

This weekend, that work and assistance paid off. Throngs of men and women arrived at polling stations as doors opened at 7 a.m. Seven million people cast their votes out of 12 million eligible voters — about 58 percent of the eligible population, according to preliminary estimates. For context, that’s right about on par with U.S. voter turnout rates, and a huge bump from 2009 when only a third as many Afghans voted. And while not completely without incident, a heavy security presence across the country ensured that the vote by and large went smoothly and peacefully.

The effort was not only in clear U.S. interests, but was also made possible through our collaboration with partners and allies at the UN. In fact, as with all UN initiatives, U.S. contributions in Afghanistan have been leveraged by other member states, which pay – in the case of UNAMA – almost 80 percent of the mission’s costs.

The goal of engaging the UN — as the U.S. and its allies have in Afghanistan — is never to create an indefinite presence. Rather, the UN’s very best work is often manifested in the things it has enabled for the long term, through all of its members sharing the costs and burden.

An election that runs freely and fairly by the people, for the people fits that bill as well as anything ever could.

Photo: UNAMA/Fardin Waezi