Georgie Anne Geyer

EDITORS: Georgie Anne Geyer is taking a one-week vacation and will not file columns dated for April 7 or April 10. Her regular schedule resumes with the column for April 14.

WASHINGTON -- Since we moved, after 9/11, to take over Iraq and Afghanistan and anybody else who stood in our way, I have often had readers criticize me for my admittedly negative attitudes toward (1) the unnecessary wars themselves, and (2) the futility of expecting tribal peoples to embrace democracy.

I stood on good, if unpleasant ground. We have not been able to systematize or even simply enforce democracy anywhere except among the Germans and Japanese after World War II -- but they were defeated peoples, and we could mold them as victors do. Anyway, I preferred to use the terms "representative government" and "economic freedom," rather than democracy and capitalism, because they were so much more subtle and ample.

But now I have to admit that there is a certain thrilling quality to the events in Afghanistan -- yes, that "hopeless" Afghanistan -- in the last two weeks before the presidential election that will essentially decide whether we have won or lost in that mysterious land.

The newspaper pictures of the Afghan women, their beautiful and expectant faces uncovered, were enough to bring tears to eyes hungry for some human grace. But many pictures of the Afghan men -- leaping to catch election leaflets, massing to hear a few very good candidates and searching for anti-fraud measures -- are almost equally revealing and touching of the excitement surrounding the election.

Most important of all, there are three excellent presidential candidates: Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmai Rassoul and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, all men with impressive international experience who have campaigned on anti-corruption, on not allowing the Taliban to come to power and on presidential strength. There is no comparison whatsoever between them and outgoing President Hamid Karzai, the querulous executive the Americans first put in power when we invaded in the fall of 2001 to defeat al-Qaida.

The until-now doomed agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan that would have kept some American troops there to defend the new regime may have a chance under these new candidates. President Karzai utterly refused to sign it, because it included a status-of-forces agreement by which American troops could not be tried in Afghan courts. (This is the same sticking point that made the Iraqi government refuse to sign, thus making it impossible for much-needed American trainers to remain there.)

But even if the best possible result comes out of the elections Saturday, will that really make a difference? The problem is that the Taliban are as strong and mean as ever in the south and across the border in Pakistan. Will Pakistan's army really move against them? Are the Afghan people resolute enough in their anti-Taliban feelings to fight them off this time? Those are the questions whose answers must wait until after the elections.

Regardless, pollsters are predicting that a good 50 percent of the electorate will vote -- a very high percentage. At least, the democratic enthusiasm already sweeping the country will never be forgotten.

Something to watch after the election results are released, whenever that is, is the role the Russians are beginning to play in this new/old Afghanistan. This move is surprising since the Russians, who invaded Afghanistan to extend their empire in 1979, had left in humiliating defeat in 1989.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty warned in reports this week: "A quarter of a century after Soviet soldiers withdrew in defeat, Moscow is looking to re-establish its economic and cultural footprints in Afghanistan -- not with troops but with tens of millions of dollars in investment projects."

Oddly enough, in Iraq, where the situation has almost devolved into civil war since American troops left, it is the Chinese who are moving in economically.

Remember when, before we invaded Iraq, the neo-con warmongers lectured everyone on how Iraq's oil would pay for the rebuilding? That America would gain by Iraq's oil? Well, now the major control of Iraqi oil is in Chinese hands, and there is almost no American investment whatsoever.

Perhaps before we invade a place, we should make the other side sign a loyalty oath?

The difficulty, of course, in getting a place like Afghanistan to embrace even a minimal level of democracy is that it is a place of tribes, where power is held in and exercised from the hands of tribal leaders. The idea of making everyone equal is not only difficult, but there is something profoundly wrong with it.

What's more, Afghanistan has gone through a lot. In the mid-19th century, British troops were in and out of Afghanistan, fighting the Germans and the Russians for control of Central Asia. In one famous year in the 1840s, Afghan tribal troops caught the entire British army in a valley and left one man alive to tell the story.

The best time for the country was the time of the Afghan kings early in the 20th century, who would broadcast by radio every night to all the people, "All is well." One wonders if that time could come again.

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