On Saturday, citizens of Afghanistan will cast their ballots in the country's first free, direct election for the country's leader. Afghanistan's road to democracy has been a rocky one, and the path ahead is still uncertain.
Saturday will mark a milestone for Afghans when they head for the polls and, for the first time, freely choose who will lead their country. Sixteen candidates - including incumbent interim President Hamid Karzai - are running for president.
Afghan Ambassador to the United States Said Tayeb Jawad said Afghans will not be intimidated from exercising their newfound freedom, despite threats of disruption by resurgent Taleban.
"The Afghans are very much determined to show to Taleban and other extremists that the day of extremism is gone in Afghanistan," said Ambassador Jawad. "We do anticipate some security incidents. The terrorists, the Taleban, are desperate. They will try to do their utmost to prevent the Afghan people from participating in this process. But minor security incidents, even a major one, hopefully, they will not happen, but will not prevent Afghans from going to the polls."
For 30 years, Afghanistan has been wrenched apart, first by Soviet invasion and occupation, then by civil war and the oppressive rule of the Taleban. Cheryl Benard, a senior policy analyst at RAND - a corporation that researches and analyzes government policies - says those events took deep human, economic and political tolls.
"So, it was a society in extreme disarray, not just from the Taleban experience, but from the civil war before that, the Soviet invasion before that, and the sort of civil war and anarchy before that," said Cheryl Benard. "So, you had sort of these layers of problems that you were facing."
The Taleban were ousted in 2001 by opposition Afghan forces, backed by U.S. military might. Afterward, Afghan leaders hammered out a series of steps to be taken toward democracy. With international help, Afghans chose an interim leader and wrote a constitution.
Ambassador Jawad calls the progress made in the past three years remarkable.
"It's incredible," he said. "Afghanistan is now an example of a successful partnership of the international community and the determination of a nation to put their life together. And, Afghanistan is emerging as an example that will affect the inspiration of people all over the globe, who are suffering under tyranny and extremism. "
However, Afghanistan is a country still in the learning mode about things like voting and elections. Even the most rudimentary fundamentals, such as how to mark a ballot, must be taught.
And security remains a continuing worry in these elections. Afghanistan is a country awash in guns, wielded not only by Taleban remnants, but by the private militias of regional warlords, who hold the true power in the countryside. Ambassador Jawad says the gun has to be taken out of Afghan politics.
"We cannot build a civil society in Afghanistan, as long as the gun rules in Afghanistan," continued Said Tayeb Jawad. "And it is very crucial to expedite the process of disarmament after the elections."
U.S. forces are sparse. Ambassador Jawad says the promises of additional international peacekeeping help, especially from NATO, have been slow in their fulfillment.
"We expected better and a larger degree of participation, in particular, the security assistance by our friends in the international community, especially NATO," he said. "NATO [countries] have promised Afghanistan in Istanbul that they will increase their troops from 6,500 to 9,000. It looks like they're reaching this number, but it's just in the nick of the time. And, I hope that, in the next phase of the election, which is the parliamentary elections, the international community will be willing to help us a little bit faster and in a more timely fashion."
But, at a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said security from newly trained Afghan forces, along with current international troops, will be sufficient for electoral security. Besides, he said, not all the polling places need protection.
"Forty eight hundred, as the chairman, I think indicated in his opening remarks, is a lot of polling places to try to protect," said Richard Armitage. "But they don't all have to be protected, because they're not all in areas that are heavily infested or infected."
House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde also voiced concern about the small number of international election observers.
"It remains to be seen how fair and credible they will be," he said. "Voter registration has achieved some notable success, which I applaud. However, with only 100 to 200 observers to be spread out among 5,000 polling sites, and with threats of extortion and intimidation being voiced by local warlords and private militias, I remain concerned about the monitoring of the elections."
What the future holds in store for Afghans is unknown. But, on Saturday, they will at least have their first chance to build that future.