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A huge day for Afghanistan

Afghanistan's first free and direct election for president doesn't look much like the one Americans are experiencing. There are no negative ads, no televised debates and, above all, no bickering over who did what in the war. Anyone who has lived there since 1978 has had a steady diet of death and violence — not to mention drought and poverty. It hasn't been possible to finagle out of obligations or buck for a purple heart.

People there are new to the idea of letting ordinary people, including women, vote their conscience. So far, campaigning has consisted mainly of quiet visits with key tribal leaders, with candidates currying favor among the people who can instruct many others in how to vote, and for whom. Then, too, there are constant worries about al-Qaida trying to bomb the people back to the old days of fundamentalist rule. Reports say many voters, particularly women, are afraid to venture to the polls. What is happening in Afghanistan this week is not democracy in the sense that much of the rest of the world would recognize.

And yet, there really is no way to look at Saturday's election as anything other than a major triumph.

Three years ago, Afghanistan was the polar opposite of the United States. The Taliban had recently used explosives to destroy gigantic Buddha rock statues in the Barniyan Valley that had stood since the fifth century; a show of defiance against religious pluralism and the popular will of the people. Women were hardly allowed to show themselves in public, let alone have any part in government. And, as Americans found out on 9/11, Afghanistan was harboring al-Qaida leaders who masterminded a deadly attack against U.S. civilians.

Think of the progress that has taken place from that time to the present, and it makes the long road ahead seem a little less difficult. It also lends hope to the situation in Iraq, although the multinational approach to the war in Afghanistan has made that conflict a little easier to control than the one in Iraq.

Still, Afghanistan is not yet comfortable with the idea of the peaceful rule of the people. In a rare campaign rally this week, interim President Hamid Karzai spoke to a crowd of 10,000, but he had to bark at his security guards to allow an old man to come shake his hand. "This is democracy," the Associated Press quoted him as saying. "This is emotion!"

The trick, of course, is to let honest and civil differences over public policy take the place of emotion, but that will come with time and persistence.

Come Saturday, there will be 4,807 polling places at the ready, each with separate booths for men and women. More than 10 million people have registered to vote, including refugees in Pakistan and Iran. And a little more than 40 percent of these are women. All Americans should hope and pray that the balloting, and the counting of those ballots, proceeds without incident, setting a precedent that will change life in Afghanistan forever.