The October Surprise in this election — and it’ll be a surprise only if you haven’t been paying attention — will be the pictures flashed around the world of millions of people lining up to vote on Saturday in Afghanistan’s first-ever presidential election.
True, Afghanistan still is a tough environment, tough enough so that troops will be stationed to protect the polling sites. And no doubt there will be violence by those who want to disrupt the electoral process. But the big story will be that, despite the threat, more than 10 million Afghanis who have registered to vote, including at least 4 million women, will be going to the polls to elect a president for the first time in their history.
The election won’t be perfect. Afghanistan won’t be perfect. But it’ll be better, both for us and the Afghanis, than when that country was the world headquarters for al Qaeda’s training camps.
Hamid Karzai, whom the United States supports, is expected to win in a landslide. Already, the critics are charging that Karzai was “selected” by the United States, just as they say George W. Bush is the “selected” president of the United States. Nevertheless, it’s a hard sell to argue that things aren’t now better in Afghanistan than when playing chess or flying a kite was punished by jail time and the Taliban used the soccer stadium in Kabul as the site for amputating hands and the public execution of fornicators.
The election isn’t the last step in the process of establishing a democratic government in Afghanistan. It’s only a beginning step for a nation torn apart by decades of civil war and extremist rule by the Taliban. And there’s no shortage of al Qaeda terrorists, anti-democratic warlords, and Taliban fanatics who are determined to derail the process. As a coalition, they seek nothing less than the regeneration of a narco-terrorist state that can clamp a fundamentalist straitjacket on the Afghani people and fund a worldwide assault against the West.
Hanging chads, in short, won’t be the problem Saturday. We can look ahead to car bombs and rocket attacks. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, though displaced, are still a force, as are banditry and warlordism. This year more than twice as many reconstruction workers have been killed as in 2003. In the nine months it took to register voters, 12 people have been murdered and 30 injured in election-related terrorist attacks.
But no car bomb should eclipse the fact that what we’re seeing is the turning of a nation. Since the defeat of the Taliban in the fall of 2001, about 3.5 million Afghani refugees have returned to Afghanistan, voting with their feet. On election day, millions more who haven’t yet made it home will be voting by absentee ballot — 800,000 living in refugee camps in Iran, another 1.5 million in Pakistan. By a million-to-one, the voters in Afghanistan will outnumber those who get up that morning and strap dynamite sticks to their exhaust pipes, or around the waists of their children.
None of what I’m saying is meant to suggest that things are fundamentally okay in Afghanistan, or in Iraq. The assessment on Afghanistan that Donald Rumsfeld gave to CNN’s Larry King in December 2002, a year after the Taliban had been driven from power, was plainly too upbeat. “There are people who are throwing hand grenades and shooting off rockets and trying to kill people, but there are people who are trying to kill people in New York or San Francisco,” said Rumsfeld. “So it’s not going to be a perfectly tidy place.”
No, Afghanistan is worse than San Francisco, worse than a bit untidy. But it’s unquestionably not as bad as when it was the training ground for the movement that attacked New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, Afghanistan is now a line in the sand in the global struggle between a murderous form of theocratic fascism and the rest of the world, a major front in the battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda murderers who seek to slaughter as many of us as is necessary in order to purify the world in the name of Allah. It’s a fight, if we’re to continue to exist, that we can’t afford to lose.