By David Rohde
April 8 (Reuters) - In a nation more associated with calamity than consensus, the initial results of Saturday's Afghan presidential election are startling.
Despite Taliban threats to attack polling stations nationwide, the same percentage of Afghans turned out to vote - roughly 58 percent - as did Americans in the 2012 U.S. presidential race. Instead of collapsing, Afghan security forces effectively secured the vote.
And a leading candidate to replace Hamid Karzai is Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank technocrat who has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, a Lebanese Christian wife, and an acclaimed book and TED talk entitled "Fixing Failed States."
"Relative to what we were expecting, it's very hard to not conclude that this was a real defeat for the Taliban," Andrew Wilder, an American expert on Afghanistan, said in a telephone interview from Kabul on Monday "And a very good day for the Afghan people."
Two forces that have long destabilized the country - its political elite and its neighbors - could easily squander the initial success. Evidence of large-scale fraud could could undermine the legitimacy of the election and exacerbate long-running ethnic divides. And outside powers could continue to fund and arm the Taliban and disgruntled Afghan warlords, as they have for decades.
"None of it means it's over, Afghanistan is a democracy and we've won,'" said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. "But I don't think you can look at this turnout - in the rain and against death threats - and say nothing much has been achieved, as critics like to say."
One of the biggest beneficiaries was the Afghan security forces. To the surprise of both Afghan and foreign observers, the Taliban failed to carry out a single large-scale assault in a major city. The group claimed to have carried out 1,000 attacks nationwide but security officials said that was a gross exaggeration. Election observers said the level of violence was unclear.
This year, there were about 90,000 fewer American and NATO troops in the country and those that remained were confined to bases and served as a reserve force. Instead, 350,000 Afghan police and soldiers fanned out across the country. Wilder said the Afghan government security effort in Kabul, where he observed the vote, was the most sweeping he has seen in thirty years of intermittently working in the country.
"It was a really phenomenal security operation," said Wilder. "I've never seen anything like it."
After the vote, Afghan police were a "sensation" on social media, garnering wide praise, according to Wilder. Their popularity also extended to the street: one election observer reported seeing a group of young Afghans buy scores of roses and distribute them to police officers the day after the vote.
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan who served a senior adviser to the State Department from 2009 to 2013, cautioned that the Taliban will retaliate.
"There will be a test of strength this year and next year," Rubin said, referring to Taliban attacks. But "an election that goes well can only strengthen the morale of the security forces and reduce the morale of the Taliban."
The news media - as well as social media - played an unprecedented role as well. A series of presidential debates broadcast live on television were more sophisticated than in the past. And intensive Afghan news coverage - and social media commentary - on Taliban attacks before the vote may have driven up turnout.
In particular, the pre-election execution-style killing of popular Afghan journalist, Sardar Achmad, his wife, six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son as they ate a holiday dinner in a Kabul luxury hotel outraged many Afghans. A Facebook page that tracked the recovery of a two-year-old boy who was shot in the head -- the family's lone survivor -- generated vast online traffic and sympathy.
"The attacks really mobilized Afghans to come out and vote," said Wilder.
And in terms of candidates, it was Ghani, the technocrat turned effective campaigner, that most surprised observers.
Despite wide praise for Ghani's 2002-2004 tenure as Afghanistan's finance minister, he was seen as lacking political skills or a large electoral base. Afghans who remained in the country during the 1980s Soviet occupation and 1990s civil seemed to resent Afghans who, like Ghani, had fled the country and flourished. In 2009, Ghani ran for president and won about four percent of the vote.
After his 2009 defeat, Ghani remained in Afghanistan, built a home and took a position overseeing the transition of security operations from foreign forces to Afghan units. Visiting every province in the nation, he developed a vast network of supporters. Criticized in the past for being too haughty, abrasive and Western, he donned local clothes and grew a short beard.
In a maneuver that surprised many, he forged an electoral alliance with Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Uzbek warlord long accused of gross human rights violations. Having Dostum as an ally delivered a large block of votes to Ghani. In debates and on the campaign trail, Ghani vowed to end corruption and modernize Afghanistan.
"He has been exciting to young people," said Neumann, the former ambassador. "He is really the change candidate."
Numerous dangers lie ahead. Karzai can exert his sizeable influence on whoever wins. Warlords and others who have benefited from years of corruption may resist change. And the Taliban remain the largest wild card of all.
After years of supporting the Afghan Taliban and undermining Karzai's government, Pakistan's army may decide to undermine Afghanistan's new leader as well. Rubin, the former State Department official, described a more alarming scenario. He argued that Pakistan's military has tried for years to influence the Afghan Taliban but their ability to do so has diminished in recent years.
"The fundamentals haven't changed that much," he said.
Wilder expressed caution as well but called Afghans' enthusiasm on Saturday "infectious." The question, he said, was whether a new group of Afghan leaders would respect it.
"Voters have done their part," he said. "Now, it's up to the candidates to behave responsibly."
(Reporting by David Rohde; edited by Arlene Getz)