Opinion The Afghan Miracle

Despite threats to registration centers and candidates, over 10 million Afghans have registered to vote in this week's election. By WILLIAM SAFIRE

Washington - Let's not be taken in when defeatists try to pooh-pooh the promise of this week's election in Afghanistan.

Already the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - more insecure and uncooperative than usual - has announced that it will refuse to declare this coming election to be free and fair. European nit-picking about "irregularities" will be fierce from high-minded bureaucrats who do not realize that the most irregular thing in that part of the world is anything approximating a free election. Too much world media coverage will focus on pictures of violence at polling places, not on the big news: lines of courageous Afghans patiently waiting to vote. Tinhorn despots are passing out leaflets in refugee camps promising divine rewards to anyone who kills a poll worker.

Such terrorist acts by die-hard Taliban insurgents may be excitingly pictorial, but images of Muslims, especially women, voting for the first time - and of candidates for office literally taking their lives in their hands to campaign - are deemed not sufficiently mesmerizing.

Another reason to downplay or dismiss Election Day in Afghanistan is that it is clearly good news for America and its allies, who are directly responsible for this outbreak of freedom in a Muslim land.

If the mountain people of this war-ravaged nation, whose cash crop is poppies for illegal opium, can stand up to their tormentors and grasp the powers of democracy, their example will offer hope to the better-educated Iraqis sitting on their nation's sea of oil. Afghanistan would be the first good domino to tip over.

When the Afghan president Hamid Karzai visited here a few months ago, he told us of his hopes to persuade some 7 million of the 10 million eligible Afghan voters to register. He underestimated his people's hunger for representative government: despite threats to registration centers, and in the face of assassination attempts on the lives of candidates, over 10 million Afghans have registered, plus 2 million more in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.

That's a political miracle. It also does not add up; some people are apparently registering more than once. ("Vote early and often" is supposed to be a joke. U.S. pollsters have never measured an electorate in which likely voters outnumber registered voters.)

But the indisputable fact of the enthusiasm for voting is what is so heartening. Afghans look with wonderment at their secret ballot, and take real risks for the freedom Americans take for granted.

Who's ahead? Karzai is the front-runner in a field of 18, but will face a runoff if he falls short of 50 percent of the vote. Yunus Qanooni is the dark horse. That's the beauty of an election, even one with vote-buying and other "imperfections": it's rarely a sure thing.

I asked Karzai during his visit here about his country's warlord problem; would these local satraps with their private militas, and corrupted by opium profits, take direction from the elected central government in Kabul?

"Warlord is a hard word," he replied mildly, trying to be a good politician. "I prefer to call them 'regional leaders.' "

But what about the likes of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek strongman who has been exercising his newfound right of free speech to blaze away at the government for not ensuring security or getting money for reconstruction? Karzai smiled. "You could call him a warlord."

Welcome, then, to the world's interrelated four-month, four-nation election cycle:

Afghans, fighting their unaccustomed way to the polls through feudal fundamentalists and Arab terrorists, will be the most closely watched. But Australians also vote this weekend. Prime Minister John Howard has reaffirmed the traditional Australian-American alliance; he is opposed in the elections by Labor's Mark Latham, the bring-the-boys-home-from-Iraq-by-Christmas candidate.

Then come the U.S. elections, about which you heard plenty last night.

Finally, Iraqi elections are scheduled for January. These will be influenced by the Afghan electoral example, and by the Australian decision signaling the breadth of future coalition support. Most of all, the U.S. election outcome will tell Iraqi voters to expect U.S. help in building a new life in a federal system - or to worry about helicopters hurriedly leaving the roof of the U.S. embassy.

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