The election process, one of the most rudimentary steps in democracy building, is wobbling in Afghanistan.
This is of no small consequence, considering America's large investment in democracy initiated by the war on terrorism, and the need to prevent Afghanistan from regrouping as a terrorist launching pad.
Taliban insurgents are intimidating many would-be voters, handing out leaflets that threaten people's lives if they register to vote. At the same time, UN workers have registered only 1 million out of 10.5 million eligible voters for the Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections, planned for June.
A US official and diplomats from other countries are no longer sure they can meet the schedule, and some have suggested Afghanistan's transition to democratic governance might have to be delayed.
The situation echoes Iraq, where the country's leading Shiite cleric demanded elections prior to the June 30 handover of US power. But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan agrees with the US that there is not enough time to prepare for elections this summer.
At this point, it's useful to remember that an election, while a building block of democracy, is not the only block - maybe not even the most important one. To see that, look at two emerging democracies in the news.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is about to win reelection after jailing one political opponent and monopolizing the media. In Haiti, the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide shows signs of despotism as he unleashes his armed gangs on protesters. Both cases illustrate that elections, without functioning democratic institutions like rule of law or a free press, cannot guarantee democracy.
Remember also, that the election process evolves. A common requirement of voters in colonial times was that they be landowners. Today America is still refining its election process, experimenting with touch-screen voting and other methods to avoid a repeat of Florida's flawed ballots in the 2000 race.
This is why it's important that the perfect not become the enemy of the good. In Afghanistan, every effort must be made to meet the June deadline. Understandably, President Karzai does not want to be seen as improperly holding on to power. And the timetable, stipulated in the UN- sponsored Bonn Accords, is endorsed in Afghanistan's new constitution.
NATO is right to request a bigger security force in Afghanistan, and the UN is wisely accelerating its plan to set up 4,200 voting stations. But even if flawed, the elections should proceed if at all possible. The security troubles that plague Afghanistan today will be there tomorrow, and elections will not change this overnight. For this reason, voting should not be held hostage to the threat of violence nor to Western preconceptions about high voter turnout in a communal, tribal society unfamiliar with democracy.