"Somehow we think that in a country like Afghanistan, a 225-year process can be completed in 10 months because we know what's good for them. You have to recognize the existence of traditional social structures for what they are, and build on them."
In much of Afghanistan, the prevailing social structure for making big decisions is the tribe. Tribal elders settle disputes among villagers over everything from land rights to marriages, and pass judgment on crimes from petty theft to murder. Tribes are stronger in rural areas than in cities like Kabul, but in a country where perhaps 80 percent of the population lives in villages, tribes are the second highest authority, next to Allah.
There are democratic aspects to tribes that can be built on, democracy workers say. Afghanistan has a long history of holding grand councils of tribes, or loya jirgas, to pass new laws or to convey legitimacy to a new government. But ultimately tribal societies tend to reinforce a collective identity. Individuals are only as important as the group or tribe they belong to, and tribe members who buck the authority of tribal elders often find themselves frozen out. In an election context, this can lead to very undemocratic behavior.
In southeastern Khost province last month, elders of the Terezai tribe announced on Khost's radio station that all tribe members must vote for Hamid Karzai; tribal families who voted against Mr. Karzai would have their houses burned down.
Deference to tribe is a common attitude all across southern Afghanistan, where the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, live. Individuals such as Sayid Amir, an astrologer waiting for loaves of bread at a bakery in Qalat, know that the new Afghan Constitution allows them full personal rights. But he still says he must defer to his tribal elders with his vote.
"It depends on our tribal leaders," he says. "Yes, I know it is my right to choose whom I want. But in my region, the tribal leaders will all get together and choose whom they will vote for, and then everyone will vote for that person."