For Afghanistan’s “Generation America,” Saturday’s presidential election marks a vital rite of passage. Almost two thirds of Afghans are younger than 25, and millions have come of age during the 12 years since U.S. troops and development dollars arrived. Despite a violent Taliban insurgency and rampant corruption, young Afghans have enjoyed unprecedented freedoms and opportunities, and many of them will be voting for the first time to preserve them. A smooth election is hardly assured. On Wednesday, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at the entrance to the ministry of interior, killing six officers in one of central Kabul’s most heavily guarded spots. An election critically disrupted by the Taliban—or stolen through fraud—could push Afghanistan into renewed civil war, reopening old ethnic fissures and imperiling many gains of the past decade. As Afghanistan prepares for the first transfer of power since the U.S. installed President Hamid Karzai in 2001, the vote will determine whether the gains of the American era will be sustained after most U.S. troops go home in December.
Of the three presidential front-runners, former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, 70, is Mr. Karzai’s favorite and is seen as the establishment candidate. The two others, former World Bankexecutive Ashraf Ghani, 64, and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, 54, have chosen running mates who were warlords during the country’s civil war.
All of them, however, are working hard to woo the young vote. Mr. Rassoul pledged on Wednesday to fill his future government with young appointees. Mr. Ghani, in a recent interview, described himself as “the embodiment of the aspirations of the young men and women of this country.”
For young Afghans in particular, the vital question is less which candidate wins than whether the election comes off without triggering greater conflict. “For the new generation, it is about survival. It has the most to lose if the country reverses,” said Lotfullah Najafizada, the 27-year-old head of the Tolo News TV network, which organized boisterous debates among the candidates.