In one part of Kabul, at the massive white tent where Afghans are writing up a new constitution, the concept of democracy is moving along at a steady clip.
But across town, at the United Nations Electoral Compound - where next year's national elections are being planned - it's a very different picture. Registration efforts are two months behind schedule, voter-education programs have yet to start up, and deteriorating security conditions make it difficult for officials to catch up.
Mandated by the UN-sponsored peace talks in Bonn to take place by June 2004, Afghan national elections now may be postponed until September at the earliest. And a growing number of diplomats, academics, and aid groups say that democracy may be coming too fast.
The problem, these critics say, is that two years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains volatile. Across the country, progovernment militia commanders retain the ability to intimidate or influence voters in their regions. In the south, Taliban remnants make it unsafe to send registrars into a vast area dominated by the nation's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. No election is perfect, these critics say, but if a large number of Afghans see the upcoming vote as illegitimate, the country could fall back into violent instability, even civil war.
Among those calling for a delay is Francesc Vendrell, the European Union diplomat who set up the Afghan-democracy timetable in the first place.
"I think in the current situation, you cannot have free and fair elections for either the head of state or for the Parliament," says Mr. Vendrell, the EU's representative in Kabul. "In such an agreement, there is a tendency to follow in a ritualistic way the letter of it, rather than the spirit of it. The danger is this: Elections that are not credible among the Afghan people would be a setback for the process."
As the UN's chief electoral officer, Reginald Austin is a realist. He expects problems as Afghanistan transitions to democracy. At first, the UN didn't have enough money to do its job, which includes informing the Afghan people of their rights, organizing and supervising the elections, and protecting voters while they cast ballots. Now the problem is safety.
"We have ISAF [NATO-led peacekeepers] in Kabul, and we have the coalition forces fighting a war everywhere else," says Mr. Austin, who has organized elections in Zimbabwe, Angola, and Cambodia. "There is no sign of changing the mandate of ISAF, and even if there were, they'd have to redeploy to the whole country to be effective. Out in the field, our international staff are very vulnerable."
In the meantime, the UN and Afghan election officials say they are quickly running out of time. Voter registration was supposed to begin in October. Lack of funding from international donors delayed registration until early this month, and by the time money started arriving ($58 million, just 63 percent of what was promised), the security situation had deteriorated. In the past year, five international aid workers and 13 Afghan aid workers have been killed in the south and southeast by suspected Taliban fighters, and the UN election office's compound in Kandahar has been bombed.
The lack of security has delayed voter-education programs. Many Afghans have never voted. Now that they have the chance, they often live in a setting dominated by armed militias with the power to intimidate. Voters who don't know they can cast ballots in secret may feel that voting isn't worth the risk. Women, too, may not know they are enfranchised.
A recent study, conducted by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), concluded that national elections should be postponed indefinitely, until security conditions improve. "The key reforms - in security, in the judicial system, in the rule of law - have not taken place, and these are a precondition to any free and fair election," says Thomas Muller, director of AREU in Kabul. "We argue that it's better to delay elections ... than to rush through with elections on schedule and create more instability."
For the Afghan government, however, there is no turning back. President Hamid Karzai, whose mandate runs out at the end of 2004, is among the most ardent in arguing that the election process should continue. Even imperfect elections, Afghan officials argue, are better than the risk of having a government whose legitimacy has run out.
"I think it's a bit late to be raising this issue," says Omar Samad, spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry. "It would be inappropriate to divert the course of events. Obviously, everyone would have liked to have more breathing space for the political process and to have certain political reforms in place. But we need to find a solution for the restricted time frame we're facing."
The news is not all bad, of course. Afghan officials applauded voter registration turnout in the province of Nangrahar, for instance, a highly populated region of the conservative Pashtun south.
Zakim Shah, the chief Afghan election official, praised Nangrahar citizens for their high turnout, which made up 35 percent of those registered in the entire country. Yet even there, conservative Pashtun attitudes about the rights of women kept the registration of women voters quite low. As of Dec. 18, only 436 women in Nangrahar had registered, compared with 21,122 men.
Austin says that despite Afghanistan's current challenges, he has seen countries pull themselves out of worse situations before. Ahead of Cambodia's crucial 1993 elections, for instance, there were three armed forces - the Khmer Rouge, the royalists, and the communist government of Hun Sen - all competing for the election. Gunmen intimidated and even killed election officials and voters alike, Austin recalls, but the vote still went on.
The results were surprising. Voters turned out in force, and voted against the largest of the armed factions, the ruling communists of Hun Sen.
"People can be very brave in these circumstances," he says. "But we have a lot of catching up to do."