When Afghanistan holds its first direct election for president on Oct. 9, it will also be the first test of President Bush's idea that democracy is a cure-all for Muslim nations prone to aiding and abetting radical Islamic terrorists.
The election, which so far has 18 candidates in contention, may also foreshadow possible difficulties for a January election scheduled in Iraq, a nation that's the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's grand scheme to eventually rid the Middle East of authoritarian regimes.
The Afghan vote comes nearly three years after US-led forces ousted the Taliban and uprooted Al Qaeda's terrorist headquarters as a result of 9/11. A special nationwide tribal council called the loya jirga has since set up a temporary constitution and government led by Hamid Karzai, who, backed by the US, is the favored candidate for Oct. 9. But the challenge of preparing for a safe and credible election in a country torn by war and divided by ethnicity is formidable.
The election already has been postponed from its original date last June. Although voter registration exceeds expectations, concerns abound about double registration. And the United Nations claims the country lacks many basic conditions for a fair vote, even though it's helping conduct the election.
At least 20 people have been killed in election-related violence, and portions of the country remain under the control of remnants of the Taliban or local chieftains with militias who plan to influence voters by intimidation.
Some 18,000 US troops are still chasing members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, while a NATO force of 8,000 is trying to safeguard a few major cities. They are backed up by a new Afghan Army with over 14,000 troops and a police force of about 30,000.
Beyond the security concerns, however, just the logistics of balloting are daunting. Everything from MI-8 helicopters to donkeys will be used to transport ballot boxes across difficult terrain. Election officials have maps that show areas at low, medium, and high risk for violence. In a highly illiterate nation, many voters don't believe their vote will be secret. Or they worry that the indelible ink put on their thumb to indicate they voted will identify them later to Taliban gunmen (the ink supposedly comes off in five days).
The ballots had to be printed in Canada (with pictures of the candidates on them) while the ballot boxes come from Denmark. Millions of marking pens had to be imported. Extra polling stations are required because men and women will vote separately. (Some Muslim preachers have said women shouldn't vote - even though 41 percent of those who registered are women.)
Holding this election just before the US election could prove a bane or a boon to Bush's strategy against terrorism as well as to his own chances of reelection. The fact that he pushed for an Afghan election at this time indicates his confidence in a fair result, which would be to his political favor.
Those on the ground may have their doubts, but so far it seems more people than not want this election to succeed, and help Afghanistan escape quickly from its past.