To the Bush bunch, an election seems to equal “democracy.” Yet five months after elections in Iraq, that country has no government. And nine months after parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, it’s unclear who the new legislature represents and where it’s headed.

I recently visited the Afghan Parliament, just finishing its third month in session, to interview twenty members of the lower house who seem to many Afghans to be the last, best hope for a democratic future. They are certainly not typical. Standard issue parliamentarians are familiar mujahedeen commanders and cronies previously defeated, discredited and driven from the country. But these twenty parliamentarians are different: They’re women.

Trumpeted as “the first democratically elected Parliament in over thirty years,” this one was planned at the December 2001 Bonn conference that followed the fall of the Taliban, and was brought into being at fabulous expense by an army of some 130,000 internationally paid election workers. The United States’ inexplicable pressure to invite those mujahedeen commanders to Bonn plays out now in a Parliament where every other member is a former jihadi, and nearly half are affiliated with fundamentalist or traditionalist Islamist parties, including the Taliban.

The presence of so many of the country’s notorious bad guys is certainly the most peculiar feature of this “democratic” Parliament (another is the new Parliament building itself, which has plenty of room for prayer mats but no office space). One international analyst reports that among the 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) are forty commanders (warlords) of armed militias, twenty-four members of criminal gangs, seventeen drug traffickers and nineteen men facing serious allegations of war crimes and human rights violations. The deputy chairman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission charges that “more than 80 percent of winning candidates in provinces and more than 60 percent in the capital, Kabul, have links to armed groups.” Plenty of parliamentarians parade around town in armored cars packed with bodyguards flourishing automatic weapons. “How can I stand up to that?” asked one woman delegate. “I am only one small lady arriving on the bus.”

Warlords and criminals got into Parliament by the usual tactics: intimidation, bribery, theft and the occasional murderous assault. Many spent lavishly on campaigns, running up six-figure bills despite an official spending cap of about $15,000 (750,000 afghanis). Many gave away coveted products–from cell phones to motor bikes–to inspire voter loyalty. Some allegedly stuffed ballot boxes, using voter-registration cards confiscated from women. The highest percentages of women’s votes were recorded in precisely those provinces where women are not allowed to leave the house. In Kandahar province, brimming ballot boxes were returned from women’s voting centers, although few women had been seen visiting the polls.

The presence on the ballot of the usual suspects–especially the commanders who wrecked the country–kept many voters from last September’s polls. (The low voter turnout, also attributed to widespread disillusionment with President Hamid Karzai, further dims the democratic credentials of the new Parliament.) But many voters filed a protest vote that produced Parliament’s other startling statistic: Better than one in four members of the Wolesi Jirga is a woman.

What made that result possible is a national policy of “affirmative discrimination,” a quota system endorsed and encouraged by the international community. The Afghan Constitution of 2004 provides that “from each province on average at least two female delegates shall have membership to the Wolesi Jirga.” That’s a total of sixty-eight women, or 27 percent of the lower house, a figure that catapults Afghanistan into the ranks of nations with the highest proportion of female representation. Sweden is number one, with 44 percent, and Afghanistan a respectable number twenty. (The United States, at roughly 15 percent, is a conspicuous disgrace.)

Surprisingly, when the votes were counted last September, nineteen women had received enough votes to win seats even without the quota system. In Herat, Fauzia Gailani, a political unknown who runs a gym for women, took first place, though she faced rivals backed by the former mujahedeen commander and provincial governor (and current Cabinet minister) Ismail Khan. In Farah province, second place went to Malalai Joya, the young woman who, as a delegate to the constitutional loya jirga in 2004, became dangerously famous for denouncing the warlords and war criminals in President Karzai’s Cabinet.

The performance of female candidates for the provincial councils, elected at the same time, was even more amazing. Women won the most votes in three provinces (Balkh, Ghazni and Kunduz) and won seats in eighteen of thirty-four provinces. In Kabul women won ten seats, two more than the quota prescribed. And this despite the fact that most female candidates had little money or time to spend on campaigning, while husbands and social customs kept many from campaigning at all. Many reported death threats. A rival parliamentary candidate attacked Dr. Roshanak Wardak’s home in Wardak province with automatic weapons and rockets. A local warlord is suspected in an attack in Nuristan that seriously wounded parliamentary candidate Hawa Nuristani and three of her staff just days before the election. Both women won.

From the time the election results were announced last fall, commentators worried aloud about what would happen when women met warlords. The smart, cynical money was on the warlords, while international NGOs and UN agencies hastened to offer the women coaching and technical support. But after the Wolesi Jirga was in session three months, its chairman (and former presidential candidate), Yunus Qanooni, told this reporter that there are strong and outspoken parliamentarians on both sides of the gender gap. He thinks the women are doing just fine. On the whole, the women members are better educated than the men, many of whom are illiterate; and most have careers as teachers, doctors or civil servants, while taking care of five children (on average) at home.

Qanooni argues that because Parliament is a new institution, both men and women should receive international training. Maybe in communication skills: Men complain that women interrupt them. Women say men need lessons in “democratic conversation.”

During the first full-scale parliamentary debate–on the issue of whether women parliamentarians would be allowed to travel abroad without mahrams (male escorts)–women held their own. “We no longer cross the desert by camel, you know,” said Shinkai Karokhail. “We take airplanes.” Warlords asked, “Why are these women yelling at us?” Qanooni quickly sent the issue to an administrative committee.

Women parliamentarians, who were expected to quail before the warlords, already claim to be changing them for the better. Unfortunately, the female quota system gave warlords the chance to buy loyalty in exchange for protection and financial support. One female parliamentarian claims off the record that “half the women in Parliament belong to some warlord.” So when a female parliamentarian reports that some well-known war criminal has become “a very good man,” it’s hard to know what to make of her opinion.

Nevertheless, the independent Kabul member Karokhail says it’s possible to work with the commanders. “They’re called warlords,” she says, “but they’ve survived by being very shrewd factional leaders. Politicians. They won’t oppose women or liberals on everything. They will pick their battles, and we will pick ours.” And Roshanak Wardak notes that the ground has shifted. “The commanders could be outside running around with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but they’re inside talking to us,” she says. “They used to be gunmen, but what good is a gun in the Parliament?”

That’s the hopeful view. But skeptics in the international community note the ease with which Afghan thugs adopt Western vocabulary. Armed militia commanders talk peace and democracy, and fundamentalist mullahs spout feminism. Internationals say, “The leopard doesn’t change its spots.” In the parliamentary cafeteria, women members caucus over cups of tea. In the corridor strolls gray-bearded parliamentarian Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Islamic cleric and scholar, militia commander, leader of the Wahhabi fundamentalist faction, friend of Osama bin Laden, accused war criminal and the purported choice of President Karzai (read Bush) for chairman of the Wolesi Jirga. Optimists take his narrow loss to Qanooni (himself a former mujahid and right hand to the assassinated national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud, but no extremist) as a sign of political change.

But the strolling Sayyaf is trailed day after day by fellow parliamentarians from the provinces. They parade in cloaks and shawls, their turbans tightly wrapped or trailing tails, their beards dyed jet black or bright red in the fashion of this or that part of the countryside. Unmistakably, they are drawn to the scent of power. But if Sayyaf lost, why are they still following him?

The answer lies outside the walls of Parliament, in the countryside. There, in the south and east, where warfare that followed the American bombardment of 2001 has never stopped, violence increases every day. Schools have been attacked; teachers beheaded. It is estimated that in Kandahar 200 schools have closed; in Helmand 165; in Zabul all but five of 170. Murders are reported almost every day: police officers, village officials, former political or military leaders. Americans say the attackers are Taliban, though many Afghans say the Taliban are busy working as drivers or translators for Americans who don’t know their history. Others say the attackers are drug smugglers, inciting insecurity to cover their illegal operations. But many Afghans say that the same familiar militia men are behind the violence, settling old scores.

In a sense, the countryside is supposed to belong to parliamentarians. Every Thursday they’re expected to visit their constituents and report problems back to Kabul. Women members generally have less money and more obstacles to travel, but most of them go. Dr. Gulalai Noor Safi sets off by car over the arduous Salang Pass. Safora Yalkhani boards a battered bus to Bamiyan. Roshanak Wardak takes me into the mountains of Wardak in a Russian jeep for meetings with village elders and Kuchi nomads huddling around grass-fed fires. At Abdura, twenty male elders recite the needs of the village. A school. More than 250 boys meet daily in a field, weather permitting. A like number of girls stay home. A clinic. Pregnant women walk all day to reach Dr. Roshanak’s surgery, and then they walk back with their newborns. Jobs. Twenty-five able-bodied young men have gone to work in Iran, leaving families behind. This village is lucky enough to have water, supplied most of the year by mountain snowmelt. They’ve terraced and cultivated small plots, but the rocky soil yields only enough food to last the villagers fifteen days. Then men must find paid work to feed their families. Looking out across the rocky, high-desert waste, one wonders where.

“Why don’t they pool their resources and build a school?” I ask Dr. Roshanak. “They have no resources,” she says. “I think you cannot understand what it is to have nothing.”

Making justice for such villagers throughout the country–who so far have seen no benefits of the reported billions in foreign aid to Afghanistan–is the job that many women parliamentarians are undertaking. As more and more posh palaces of drug lords and corrupt officials rise in the capital, women members speak in Parliament of the deep and widening chasm between rich and poor. Warlords claim benefits for their own fiefdoms, but women–and Chairman Qanooni–press for equality among all regions and ethnic groups.

Current power struggles don’t bode well. In late April President Karzai–Afghanistan’s own “unitary executive”–won confirmation for twenty of his twenty-five Cabinet nominees, including a previously unknown personal adviser to replace veteran Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Among the losers were the culture minister, attacked for permitting women and “racy” Indian films to appear on state TV, and Suraya Raheem Sabarnag, named to be women’s affairs minister–Karzai’s only female nominee. An anonymous Karzai aide explained that women don’t need “special appointments” to the Cabinet or the courts because they’re already represented in Parliament.

Clearly, the only effective challenge to Karzai came not from Yunus Qanooni and colleagues but from right-wing jihadis who’d like to do away with female TV performers and ministers altogether. Karzai bowed to them (again) in naming the over-aged Islamic cleric Fazl-e Hadi Shinwari to continue as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and effective head of the judiciary system. (Shinwari, who is on record opposing women on TV and equal education for girls, forced the first women’s affairs minister from office by charging her with blasphemy, an offense punishable by death.)

How can women parliamentarians stand up to that? Maybe they’re not meant to accomplish something like justice–or democracy–for Afghanistan. Maybe the new Parliament is just another foreign invention, like Kabul’s new luxury hotel, designed to gratify the international community while serving no constructive Afghan purpose. Or maybe the new Parliament, such as it is, simply belongs already to the bad old boys.