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Democracy in the Mirror of Afghanistan

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"[W]e believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and also believe it to be the best in the world and would like to offer it to others." This insight of Professor Michael Kammen came to mind as I drove around the teeming, dusty streets of Kabul last week.

The United States has an enormous military, political, and economic presence in Afghanistan, which will increase before it decreases, trying to bring to the Afghan people the kind of government against which Americans have been screaming in so-called towns meetings recently. Many Afghanis are dying and risking their lives to achieve even a semblance of the kind of government many Americans seem to distrust at best and hate at worst.

Perhaps it is because this ancient culture -- an historic truck stop of sorts for traders from the days of Marco Polo and the Silk Route, the gladiatorial arena for aspiring world powers over the centuries, and, as a new book calls it, "the graveyard of empires" -- simply is tired and wishes a halt to everyone using it as a modern day version of the OK Corral or Chicago-in-the-1920s style running gun battle arena between the U.S. Army and the Taliban.

Unlike Iraq, however, we didn't send our army there because we wanted to; we did so because our most recent day of infamy, 9/11, originated there. And, partly because we chose not to finish the job in 2002, we are now back to pick up where we left off seven years ago.

As a member of a small international group observing the second presidential election in this very old country's history, these reflections are rendered not to stimulate debate about American policy in Afghanistan but to consider 21st century democracy and what it means through a different set of eyes and, strangely enough, to ponder whether the Afghan people, even in their desperate life-and-death struggle, might have a lesson for us.

A small army of media, non-governmental organizations, and members of the international community blanketed last week's election focusing on the same questions that dominate U.S. elections: winners and losers; voter turn-out; rumors of manipulation and fraud; and, in this case, numbers of dead and wounded. Within 48 hours most of this army was at the airport headed for the next war zone or arena of excitement.

The skeptics concluded that the turn-out was low, especially in the hostile south and east, too many women stayed away out of fear, and as many as 50 or more were killed on election day. For the smaller group of us who saw the glass half full, however, it was an inspiring experience. Despite ancient cultural and religious traditions of misogyny, a surprising number of candidates of provincial councils were women, and women voted in appreciable numbers in the safer regions. Unlike the only previous national presidential election in 2004, this election was managed by the Afghan government and included an independent election commission. The candidates spoke to issues of great public concern and avoided attacks and acrimony much more, it must be said, than in American elections. No one called any of the candidates "socialists" or "communists."

Though we do not know for certain yet, the turn-out could be in the range of 40 percent of eligible voters. This was considered a set-back, even a failure, by some media analysts. Asked my opinion at a press conference on Saturday, I stated this: "I do not know of one mature democracy, including my own, where, faced with the threat of death for voting, the turn-out would be 40 percent."

Against incredible odds, the Afghani people showed amazing courage, fortitude, and determination. They are to be respected, admired, and honored. Many stood in lines, amidst heat and dust, for considerable periods of time, exposed not just to the elements, but to potential rocket propelled grenades, car bombs, and drive-by assassins. Only a few years before, in a soccer stadium not far from the U.S. Embassy, 30,000 people or more filled the seats to watch masked Taliban thugs force women to their knees, then shot them in the back of the head.

Last Thursday, a woman called Nurzia, the mother of four, took her children with her to vote. Like many others she was asked if she was afraid. "Why should we be afraid," she said. "We came to have a say in our future and for our children."

It is left to us to ponder whether any of us has her courage or her understanding of what genuine democracy truly means.

This post also appears in the Denver Post.