Afghans will see a glimpse of democracy

Saturday, Afghans vote in their country’s first-ever presidential election. Countless observers have noted the election will be deeply flawed, and many more will question its legitimacy after.

These valid complaints should not distract us from a larger truth: Democracy is a slow and arduous process. Afghanistan has a long way to go toward a more perfect form of government, but it also is far removed from the Taliban.

That change is a joy to consider. The Kabul soccer stadium that once featured public executions played host Wednesday to a 6,000-strong campaign rally for current president and likely winner Hamid Karzai. The race for president includes one female candidate – one more than ours – and a vast improvement over the days when women were barred from public education.

The campaign has introduced free speech to a generation that grew up amid Soviet repression and Taliban cruelty. The 17 candidates have promised new roads, better education and a stronger central government.

The last pledge is a much-needed antidote to the regional warlords who menace much of Afghanistan. U.S. forces number only 17,000. With an equally limited NATO contingent and an infant Afghan national army, the countryside remains vulnerable to opium-fueled power brokers and Taliban remnants.

That will undoubtedly complicate Saturday’s exercise in democracy. The Taliban and several warlords have threatened women in an effort to keep them away from the polls. Violence has kept most candidates from venturing beyond major cities. Coercion, bribery and violence will likely keep many Afghans from voting their consciences.

President George W. Bush probably won’t mention these problems when he touts Afghanistan’s march toward democracy. Nor will he tell voters that Afghanistan would look more democratic if U.S. troops and dollars were more plentiful. But U.S. failings should not distract us from Afghan successes.