Like virtually every adult in this Panjshir Valley village, Rahmal Beg registered to vote weeks ago. Indeed, popular enthusiasm is so high for the Oct. 9 presidential election -- the first in Afghan history -- that thousands of people in the valley have reportedly registered twice.
"Everyone wants to vote," the 75-year-old farmer said proudly. "The radio, the mullahs and the district officials have all promoted the election. This is our chance to choose a leader who is patriotic and Islamic. Our valley was the center of resistance against the Russians and the Taliban. Now we want to become the center of democracy."
Given the hectic and frequently dangerous conditions for voter registration during the past six months, Afghan and U.N. officials view double registration as a minor flaw in an unexpectedly successful process. By Sunday, when the registration period ended, more than 9.9 million people -- slightly more than the estimated number of eligible voters -- had signed up nationwide.
But beneath the formal momentum of public participation and choice, Afghan and foreign analysts say, murkier pressures are at work. These include deal-making among candidates, drug money influence and old ethnic rivalries that could undermine the election's legitimacy as a historic test of political freedom in Afghanistan.
Until recently, international concern has focused on the problem of terrorist violence from Islamic extremist groups, including the revived Taliban militia, which has vowed to stymie the election and has recently attacked rural aid workers, voter registration aides, police stations and U.S. military patrols and outposts, especially in the desolate southeast.
Terrorism, however, is only one threat to a fair and free vote. Behind-the-scenes maneuvering, observers said, could dangerously split the election along the same ethnic lines that led to civil war in the 1990s -- or reduce it to a formality that ushers in a new coalition government between President Hamid Karzai and the same group of controversial militia leaders with whom he has shared power for the past 32 months.
"In a country like ours, an election can be a double-edged knife that can hurt or kill democracy," said Homayoun Shah Assefy, 64, a lawyer and political scientist who recently returned to Kabul, the capital, from long exile in France and is running for president. Assefy said Karzai, the front-runner, might well win at the polls -- only to enter office hamstrung by pre-election backroom deals that leave him tainted and paralyzed as a leader.
Only three weeks ago, Karzai seemed assured of gaining the majority of votes needed to win a first-round election. Installed by the United Nations in late 2001 and backed by the Bush administration, he had no serious rivals among 23 candidates. The scion of a noble ethnic Pashtun clan, he was popular with the public and enjoyed the advantages of incumbency such as the use of state media.
The president, sometimes criticized as a weak leader, also appeared to be taking an increasingly hard line with Afghanistan's regional strongmen, known as warlords, who have resisted international demands to disarm their forces, and who brawl among themselves and pose a perennial threat to central power.
But on July 26, this tough stance appeared to backfire. Karzai announced he was dropping Marshal Mohammed Fahim, the defense minister and Panjshiri militia leader, from his ticket as first vice president. Stung, Fahim and other Panjshiris in Karzai's shaky coalition cabinet bolted and put forth a rival candidate, Education Minister Yonus Qanooni.
Qanooni is a professional respected in Afghanistan and a former aide to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the ethnic Tajik guerrilla fighter who was assassinated in 2001. Qanooni might not be able to beat Karzai, experts said, but he could easily force the elections into a second round, from which a much weaker winner would emerge.
Last week, the plot thickened when the national election commission announced the final list of 18 presidential candidates. The list included two other ethnic minority militia leaders -- Mohammed Mohaqeq and Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum -- despite rules barring any candidate who had remained in command of private troops or abused human rights.
Some election experts here welcomed the field of candidates as a positive step for Afghanistan's democracy in the rough. They argued that it was preferable to have warlords competing for office than shooting at each other, and they noted that all major candidates had pointedly selected running mates from different ethnic groups than their own.
But other Afghan and foreign observers expressed concern that minor candidates, including a female physician and a poet, would become bartering chips in a race dominated by gladiatorial rivals, and that these strongmen might either end up in a bloody ethnic slugfest or buy up shares of power in a future Karzai administration.
"Qanooni offers a tangible alternative to leadership, and it's healthy to have so many candidates," said Grant Kippen, with the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute here. "But it's the credibility of the process that matters most. In the end, people will ask whether the process has contributed to removing people who rule by the gun, or whether it has instead allowed them to participate and become legitimate."
The voters have made it clear they are looking for a fresh political start.
In the Panjshir Valley, a beautiful but war-ravaged region north of Kabul badly in need of paved roads, electricity and water, Qanooni -- the native son and heir apparent to the revered guerrilla fighter Massoud -- seems the obvious choice to bring home those benefits.
Yet in village after riverside village, residents said they were exhausted from years of ethnic fighting and planned to vote for whichever candidate seemed to offer the best chance for economic stability and national unity.
"I fought in the holy war against the Russians like everyone else, and I would vote for a man who had Massoud's qualities," said Shah Agha, 28, a shopkeeper in the village of Rokha. "But I really don't care if the winner comes from the Panjshir or not, as long as he wins fairly. We have never had elections before, and the only thing that matters to me is that they are fair and impartial."
In Kandahar province, six Taliban rebels were killed and 11 captured in an air and ground assault by U.S. and Afghan government forces Sunday, the Reuters news service reported, citing a government spokesman. Earlier in the day, a Taliban spokesman said rebels had killed six Afghan army troops in a pre-dawn raid on a military post in the province.