KABUL and JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- This spot in the eastern city of Jalalabad used to be where Soviet soldiers came for R & R, enjoying a movie theater and a pool. Now it is home to what the allies in Afghanistan call a Provincial Reconstruction Team, with a syrupy welcome sign that states its decidedly un-Soviet mission: "Working Together for Peace and Stability." As a local tribal leader tells Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld in a meeting: "When the Russians came here it was without our permission, and they killed us. We invited you, and you have helped us."
Afghanistan, the first front in the war on terror, has often been lost in the hue and cry over Iraq. But a historic presidential election is scheduled in October. "It signals the end of the era when power is transferred in Afghanistan by force," says a senior defense official. "It's a very significant event." Three years after a dark religious tyranny was vanquished from this land, it is on its way to a kind of imperfect democracy.
More than 9 million Afghans have registered to vote, roughly 90 percent of the eligible voters by one estimate. This far exceeds expectations. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad says he used to be afraid of predicting that even 5 or 6 million Afghans would register. About 40 percent of registered voters are women, and in the north -- away from the southern base of the Taliban -- the gender proportion of the registration roughly mirrors the makeup of the population.
That doesn't mean all is rosy. One purpose of Rumsfeld's visit was to encourage Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim to channel his considerable ambitions into the legitimate political process. Fahim is a Tajik, an ethnic group from the north, and is a rival of President Hamid Karzai, a strong U.S. ally who is from the larger Pashtun ethnic group. Violence continues, and the narcotics trade has made anti-democratic forces flush with cash.
It only takes driving through Kabul in Rumsfeld's motorcade to realize the gut-wrenching effects of decades of upheaval. Rumsfeld says he sees more energy on the streets here every time he visits. It nonetheless looks as though the city just experienced a tornado. If only twisted and abandoned metal were a commodity, Afghanistan would be rich indeed. And yet, you see things that would have been impossible three years ago. Boys fly kites. Unveiled women walk under brightly colored parasols.
The deepest lesson here is that the American armed forces are the sharp end of the stick of American idealism. The Americans who man the Jalalabad reconstruction team (one of 16 around the country) are working with Afghans in all areas -- military, reconstruction, civil affairs -- to try to nurture a new Afghanistan. Even a Special Forces team transferred to the area -- with their trademark bearded, fearsome look -- is providing enhanced security explicitly in anticipation of more violence at the time of the election.
This is not an effort the United States should undertake everywhere. But in a country that was recently harboring a lethal terrorist conspiracy, making something better and sustainable deserves to be a priority. Despite violence that has killed 12 registrars, Afghans appear eager to vote. Will the election be pristine? Hardly. Asked about multiple registrations at a joint press conference with Rumsfeld, Karzai prompted puzzled looks by saying, "If Afghans like to vote twice, we'll welcome that -- that's democracy."
He later explained that ink stains on people's fingers will prevent repeat voting. But a point he made repeatedly was very sound: "We are just beginning." Many Afghans have no experience with ID cards and don't know when they were born. Roughly half are illiterate. Given all that, it is understandable that international election experts are encouraged. One proudly displayed a ballot printed that very day. It was long, with enough space for big letters and pictures of all 18 presidential candidates, with big boxes to check next to their names -- so user-friendly it might even pass muster in Florida.