October 8, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Afghans' Fateful Vote

In momentous defiance of their former Taliban mas ters, war-weary Afghans will go to the polls tomorrow to participate in their country's first direct presidential elections. Not too shabby for a nation rocked by a generation of violent conflict, going back to the wintry Soviet invasion almost 25 years ago.

Coming just three years after the nation was freed from the shackles of al Qaeda and the Taliban, tomorrow's voting is arguably one of the most significant events of the post-9/11 world.

Thought it won't be picture perfect, the election is a vital step in establishing democracy in Afghanistan. And it's happening right in the heart of the Islamic world.

Afghanistan has made tremendous progress toward democracy in very short order. Three years ago, the fundamentalist Taliban ruled the country with an iron fist and provided safe haven to al Qaeda.

In contrast, tomorrow, 18 candidates, including one courageous woman, will stand for a five-year term as Afghan president - backed by a new democratic constitution.

More than 10.6 million Afghans (of 25 million total, children included) have registered to vote. Remarkably, 42 percent of them are women - an impossibility under the Taliban. And in all but two (violence-plagued) provinces of the country's 34, voter registration exceeded 68 percent.

Even refugees will be able to vote. In Pakistan, 650,000 refugees registered, as did 400,000 in Iran. All in all, the vote should represent a broad cross-section of Afghanistan's diverse ethnic and tribal populations.

It's not all good news though. Security could be election day's biggest nightmare. Two thousand al Qaeda and Taliban jihadists will try to disrupt the elections, especially near their strongholds along the rural Pakistan border.

Major cities may be targeted as well. A coordinated Vietnam Tet-style offensive in Kabul (the capital) and Kandahar (the former Taliban bastion) on election day is certainly a possibility.

The candidates aren't safe either. Interim President Hamid Karzai, his vice presidential running mate and one of his deputies have all escaped separate assassination attempts in the last two months. Security concerns (plus a lack of funds, political experience - and roads) have limited vigorous, western-style campaigning.

Voter intimidation is also a worry. Al Qaeda and Taliban threats will likely depress turnout in the Pashtun-dominated south and east. Elsewhere, regional warlords or tribal elders have given many voters "friendly advice" about to cast their ballot.

The election will be monitored by the watchful eyes of 125,000 Afghan election officials, including 16,000 domestic observers and 227 international monitors, at 5,000 polling centers in a country the size of Texas.

In addition, the forces of 41 nations, including the Afghan National Army (15,000 men) and police (25,000), NATO's International Security Assistance Force (8,000), and U.S. forces (18,000), are deploying to provide security.

No matter who is elected president, he - or she - will find no shortage of problems. In addition to the ongoing insurgency, opium production - the world's largest - must be controlled. Narco-trafficking funds the insurgency as well as terrorism in and beyond Afghanistan.

And the government must extend its influence beyond the capital. (Some joke of Karzai as "President of Kabul.") Provincial security must be improved, and the warlords' power must be further reduced.

Tomorrow's presidential election - and the parliamentary and local races next spring - will help the nation deal with these critical tasks by conferring real legitimacy on the new government.

Every election is important, but none more so than the first. (Afghanistan actually last held elections in 1969 for parliament.) Tomorrow's polling will break the ground for future votes and the broader objectives of peace and stability.

Without question, this is an historic undertaking, the first step on a long journey to freedom and prosperity. Even if only minimally successful, the election will prove once again that Islam and democracy are indeed compatible.

But more than that, it will provide a beacon of hope to others in the Muslim world yearning to be free. There is no doubt that what happens in Afghanistan tomorrow will reverberate far beyond the country's vast mountains and deserts.

The election will also have a salutary effect on dismantling regional insurgencies. Not to mention the prospects for promoting democracy in places like Iran, Pakistan, and the countries of Central Asia. But, perhaps, most significantly, the Afghan election will give hope to the Iraqi people that democratic elections can be theirs as well.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post