Saturday, whether the Taliban or the warlords like it or not, Afghanistan will have its first-ever presidential election.
It's a moment that many Afghans have been waiting for their whole lives: a chance to sweep away the spent 50-caliber cartridges of a violent history - from kings to communists to religious zealots - and to choose collectively the future direction and leadership of their country.
Most Afghans are clearly enthusiastic about this election. Some 10.6 million are registered to vote in a country believed to have only 28.7 million people - and many say they will cast their vote no matter what the risk. Yet it is still not certain that the Afghan people know what they are getting into. Democracy is a way of life, a rock pile of rights and responsibilities that people will either build into a foundation for society, or will leave as a pile of rocks. Are the Afghan people - who have a centuries-old feudalistic culture where decisions are made by tribal chiefs and kings - ready for democracy?
It may seem an unfair and condescending question. But with the entire foundation of the Bush administration's post-9/11 foreign policy resting broadly on the notion that all men "yearn to be free" and narrowly on the successful democratic transformations of Afghanistan and Iraq - not to mention the nearly 18,000 US servicemen risking their lives here - it's a question worth asking.
Many longtime observers here say that it may take years for Afghanistan to turn into something that Westerners would consider a democracy, just as it took Western democracies themselves centuries to evolve into their current states.
"Let's look at America; we didn't start out with one man, one vote," says David Garner, a political scientist and former USAID development officer with 30 years of experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "From 1789 to 1865, we had slavery. From 1789 until 1917, we didn't let women vote."
"Somehow we think that in a country like Afghanistan, a 225-year process can be completed in 10 months because we know what's good for them. You have to recognize the existence of traditional social structures for what they are, and build on them."
In much of Afghanistan, the prevailing social structure for making big decisions is the tribe. Tribal elders settle disputes among villagers over everything from land rights to marriages, and pass judgment on crimes from petty theft to murder. Tribes are stronger in rural areas than in cities like Kabul, but in a country where perhaps 80 percent of the population lives in villages, tribes are the second highest authority, next to Allah.
There are democratic aspects to tribes that can be built on, democracy workers say. Afghanistan has a long history of holding grand councils of tribes, or loya jirgas, to pass new laws or to convey legitimacy to a new government. But ultimately tribal societies tend to reinforce a collective identity. Individuals are only as important as the group or tribe they belong to, and tribe members who buck the authority of tribal elders often find themselves frozen out. In an election context, this can lead to very undemocratic behavior.
In southeastern Khost province last month, elders of the Terezai tribe announced on Khost's radio station that all tribe members must vote for Hamid Karzai; tribal families who voted against Mr. Karzai would have their houses burned down.
Deference to tribe is a common attitude all across southern Afghanistan, where the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, live. Individuals such as Sayid Amir, an astrologer waiting for loaves of bread at a bakery in Qalat, know that the new Afghan Constitution allows them full personal rights. But he still says he must defer to his tribal elders with his vote.
"It depends on our tribal leaders," he says. "Yes, I know it is my right to choose whom I want. But in my region, the tribal leaders will all get together and choose whom they will vote for, and then everyone will vote for that person."
Voter education programs, implemented by the United Nations, have aimed at telling Afghans that their vote is secret. Yet, according to one survey, the education efforts have reached only 14 percent of Afghan voters.
Flaws such as this have led many media and human rights organizations to be critical of the election process. Among other problems, pressure from Taliban insurgents and from factional warlords could persuade many voters to vote a certain way, or not at all. Apparent voter fraud is also a concern. The 10.6 million registrations exceeded the UN's estimate of 9.8 million eligible voters. Registration topped estimates in 13 of 34 provinces - four of those by more than 140 percent. UN officials concede that multiple registrations are "probable" and that President Karzai may be violating the letter of the law by using US military helicopters - i.e., foreign assistance - for travel to campaign events.
The darkest assessment may be the refusal of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send election monitors to Afghanistan, because "the present conditions in Afghanistan are significantly below the minimum regarded by OSCE ... as necessary for credible election observation."
The UN, for its part, agrees that this election will have its flaws, but says these flaws are manageable. "The degree of freedom and fairness is adequate to allow the will of the Afghan people to be translated at the polls," says Manoel de Almeida e Silva, spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The main point, he adds, is that "we are seeing the emergence of a pluralistic system that offers voters a gamut of choices" for its leadership.
Other democracy builders in Afghanistan agree that it's much too early to get pessimistic about democracy in Afghanistan, and it's unwise to hold the country to unrealistic expectations.
"They're going through a process that starts out Western, but where tribes end up doing things the way they've always done them. What's wrong with that if people have confidence in the way things are done?" says Grant Kippen, country director of the National Democratic Institute in Kabul.
But if the West and Afghan human rights activists have high expectations and low hopes for this election, the Afghan voters themselves seem to feel the reverse. For them, this is an unusual chance to participate in a historic event, and if things don't change all that much, well, it's better than war.
On Wednesday, the final day of campaigning, the place to be was Kabul's national stadium. There, the Karzai campaign filled the stadium with perhaps 6,000 enthusiastic supporters, and kept them entertained with live music from a number of national artists as well as a boisterous performance of the national dance, the ataan.
In his speech, Karzai set a magnanimous tone, urging Afghans to vote their conscience, even if it meant voting against him. "If someone puts pressure on you to vote and support me, I don't want that vote," he said. "Your free vote is not only for the presidency of Afghanistan. Your free vote is for the freedom of Afghanistan, and for the next generation of Afghanistan."
Four hours later, the ethnic Uzbek warlord and former communist-turned-resistance fighter, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, held a very different rally. Where Karzai's was warmly dignified, General Dostum's was chaotic, boisterous, and rather fun.
A well-known Uzbek singer, Sharif Sahel, warmed up the crowd with love songs in Dari, and patriotic tunes in Pashto, and even a pop song about an ancient tomb in Mazar-e Sharif. On the other side of the field, a group of young Afghan men participated in tae kwon do matches, which had nothing to do with the Dostum rally. The stadium had been double-booked.
When Dostum finally took the stage, his mainly Uzbek supporters cheered his every campaign promise, from bringing security, clean drinking water, and electricity to seeds for farmers and rights for women. "I'm not trying to boast, I'm just telling you the things that are within my capability," Dostum said, and the crowd cheered.
At the end, Dostum walked out to the stadium field, wearing a traditional green-striped cloak and silver turban, and mounted a handsome brown stallion with hundreds of supporters and news media crowding around him. It's a romantic image that plays well, and for a moment one could forget that Dostum has been blamed by human rights groups for deaths of thousands of fighters and civilians during the civil war of the mid-1990s.
Whether he rides off into the sunset, or stays on to trot around the halls of power, is a decision that only Afghan voters can make.
• Total candidates: 18
• Hamid Karzai: president, Pashtun
• Yunis Qanooni: Karzai's chief rival, Tajik
• Masooda Jalal: only female candidate
• Abdul Rashid Dostum: general, Uzbek
• Population: 28.7 million (est.)
• Life expectancy: approximately46 years
• Registered voters: 10.6 million (multiple registrations probable)
• Registered women: 41 percent of voters
• Registered refugees: 740,000 in Pakistan out of 4 million Afghan refugees worldwide
• Final results in 2 to 3 weeks
• If no one receives more than 51 percent, runoff will commence two weeks later
• 400 international observers, 4,000 independent Afghan monitors
• US forces: 18,000
• NATO troops: 9,000
• Afghan National Army: 15,500
• Police officers: 22,300
• Militiamen: 40,000 to 50,000 (est.)
• 957 people reported killed in political violence this year, including 30 US soldiers
SOURCES: US State Department, Radio Free Europe, US Defense Department, United Nations, AP, General Accounting Office