This weekend Afghans return to the polls to vote in what promises to be the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history. It’s an historic occasion and a positive step for democracy, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan. Here are some of my thoughts published in today’s Foreign Policy.

We don’t know yet who will prevail in Afghanistan’s approaching presidential runoff, but we already know the big winner — the Afghan people. The big loser, of course, is the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies.

The first-round voting generated widespread excitement and high turnout, reflecting Afghans’ desire to choose their own leader, launching two experienced, pro-Western technocrats into the runoff. And despite the chorus of complaints that America is abandoning Afghanistan, the vote caps a five-year turnaround, when the U.S.-led “surge” of military and development aid salvaged a situation trending towards defeat.

Today Afghanistan is becoming able to defend and develop itself; it is not the basket case ill-informed reports suggest. Indeed, as security concerns fade, the inward focus on economic and social challenges reveals the growing normalization of Afghan politics. The main threat it faces now comes, ironically, from the international community, where patience is wearing thin and pressures for a too-rapid drawdown of support could turn impending success into failure.

Nearly 7 million Afghans defied Taliban threats by voting in the initial balloting on April 5 — a 58 percent turnout, higher than that in many U.S. elections. Fully 96 percent of likely voters told pollsters that they felt electing their own leader was very important for Afghanistan — a degree of unanimity rare in polls anywhere.

The election results, largely free of the fraud that marred the last vote in in 2009, advanced two well-educated, staunchly pro-American figures to the runoff. The front-runner, Abdullah Abdullah, is a medical doctor who served as foreign minister under outgoing President Hamid Karzai. His rival, Ashraf Ghani, a Columbia-trained anthropologist and ex-finance minister, literally wrote the book on Fixing Failed States at a Washington think-tank. It’s hard to imagine better leaders to build on their country’s recent progress. (The latest poll puts the race between them at a dead heat; the outcome is likely to turn on who can better mobilize his supporters.)

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