By Jessica Donati
KABUL, June 13 (Reuters) - Over dinner in Kabul one evening this week, the conversation among a group of officials turned darkly from Saturday's run-off round in Afghanistan's presidential election to the stunning march of Sunni Islamist rebels towards Baghdad.
In many ways, the smooth election of a successor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai would be a triumph for a war-worn country that has never known a democratic transfer of power.
Despite that milestone, there is widespread concern that Iraq could turn out to be a chilling prophecy for Afghanistan after Iraqi troops threw down their weapons in the face of determined assaults by jihadists this week.
Like Iraq, Afghanistan also has entrenched ethnic rivalries.
Its security forces also have an alarmingly high turnover rate, with the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction putting desertion rates among Afghan troops at between 30 and 50 percent a year despite advances that have been made in recent years.
Even the frontrunner for the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah, said on Thursday he saw some similarities between his country's situation and Iraq that showed the need for a "responsible" U.S. military exit strategy.
"If there is one lesson from what has happened in Iraq it is that the sectarian policies will not work anywhere," he told a teleconference with a Washington think tank. "So building trust among the people will be important."
Few would predict that Afghanistan is headed anytime soon for a breakdown like the one playing out in Iraq, where jihadists determined to establish their own state have scattered government troops in parts of the north and west.
But many fear that the final face-off for the presidency between Tajik candidate Abdullah and his Pashtun rival, Ashraf Ghani, could unleash an ethnic struggle, especially if the election is perceived to have been won by fraud.
Throw into the mix an economy under massive stress, foreign aid drying up and doubts about the ability of Afghanistan's fledgling security forces to cope on their own in the long term.
"Iraq now stands as a stark example of what can happen if the United States and its allies fail to mitigate the aftermath of an armed intervention, and this will probably haunt the discussions of Afghanistan as NATO leaders prepare for a September summit in Wales," said Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
"There's often a strong inclination by Western policymakers to shrug and say the Afghan forces will muddle through somehow - but as we've seen in Iraq, security challenges sometimes rise sharply in the years after a major international troop presence," he said.
The Taliban, for their part, see the instability that could be generated by the election as an opportunity to gain momentum.
They have made gains over the past year, inflicting heavy losses on Afghan security forces, who are bracing for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2016 but have largely stood their ground against a spike in attacks over the past 18 months.
"If the political situation worsens because of these bogus elections, we have the ability to bring law and order, as our government proved it in the past," said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. "We will not let the country turn into a chaotic situation like Iraq."
Although ethnic allegiances will play a critical role in how Afghans vote, they are less important in urban areas and both candidates sought support across ethnicities and Muslim sects.
The ICG's Smith said there is a risk that the second round of voting could be more polarised than the first, with Pashtun and Uzbek voters clustering around Ghani and large numbers of ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras supporting Abdullah.
"But these divides are sufficiently blurred - with major southern Pashtun leaders supporting Abdullah, for example - that there's no immediate risk of the kind of outright warfare between groups that we're seeing in Iraq," Smith said.
SECURITY PACT AT RISK
Still, a close result amid allegations of rampant fraud that leads both candidates to claim victory is a serious risk that could fan ethnic tensions and leave Afghanistan flailing for months in a sea of electoral complaints without a leader.
"If there is fraud and the clean votes of the people of Afghanistan become dirty it will not be acceptable for people," said Mawlana Abdul Rahman Kabiri, governor of Panjshir province, where Abdullah won almost 90 percent of the first-round vote.
"We hope that there will be legal protests by people and that Afghanistan does not turn into a battlefield," he said.
The chances of an even split between the two candidates are hard to gauge because there have been few opinion polls and those that have been taken offered widely differing views.
One casualty of a contested election result would be the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) still to be signed by Kabul and Washington.
The pact would leave a small contingent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to train the 350,000-strong security forces and conduct limited counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and other militants.
It has been blocked since last year by Karzai. Abdullah and Ghani have both said they would sign it promptly if elected but the pact could be stalled further if there is a dispute over the result and a power vacuum ensues.
Among those who had tried to pressure Karzai to sign the agreement was Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, who in December pointed to the sectarian violence that overtook his country after it failed to reach a security agreement with Washington before U.S. troops pulled out in 2011. (Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Bazarak and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Paul Tait)