The male voter-registration team waited on the terrace for the last stragglers. In three days, they had registered almost the entire male population of voting age in Chashmai Maiwand, a 300-household village in southern Afghanistan. But things were going more slowly for the female team.
The three women stepped down from their jeep in identical pale-blue burkas--head-to-toe garments worn for modesty--and swept quickly out of view into the women's quarters of a house. In Afghanistan's conservative Muslim districts, women are rarely allowed to leave home, so the female team must visit most households individually.
And when the women receive their voter-registration cards, a question remains: Will their husbands allow them out of the house long enough to vote?
A ROLE FOR ISLAM
Registering women is just one of the challenges posed by Afghanistan's first presidential election. A new constitution combining Islamic and democratic principles provides for the election of a President and a two-chamber Parliament, and the recognition, at least officially, of women as equal citizens. By September, 9 million Afghans had registered for the balloting, which was scheduled for October 9.
But even as voters of the newly named Islamic Republic of Afghanistan prepared to cast their first ballots, most were still living on less than a dollar a day, and their country struggled to rebuild after 25 years of war and oppression.
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and fought a 10-year war against guerrillas called mujahedeen. The U.S. saw the mujahedeen as allies in the Cold War struggle with the Soviets and backed them with $2 billion.
THE TALIBAN AND AL QAEDA
When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the U.S. cut its involvement and Afghanistan descended into civil war, with different factions battling for power. In 1996, the Taliban, a brutally strict Islamic group, gained control. They ruled for five years, providing a haven for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
In retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. launched air strikes against Al Qaeda camps along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan in October 2001. Within a month, a ground campaign had toppled the Taliban regime, and Hamid Karzai became interim President in December. The U.S. and its allies promised to help rebuild the country and establish democracy. Remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda hid along the mountainous 1,500-mile Pakistan border, where bin Laden is also...