Pax Democratica in Kabul

In the early months after Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush fought terrorism with guns blazing, starting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. But he eventually embraced the need to also deploy America's "soft power" - aid, ideas, and democracy - to keep stateless terrorists such as Al Qaeda from finding a home base.

That nonviolent approach won a key victory on Sunday when rival factions in Afghanistan endorsed a power-sharing Constitution that could lead to the country's first democratic elections later this year.

The three-week work of the Afghan national convention, or loya jirga, was a major test of this Bush doctrine, and its success gives hope that postwar Iraq might also find a way to balance its ethnic and religious divisions under the big tent of tolerance that a democratic constitution can provide.

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Mr. Bush, unfortunately, gave up the idea of Iraqis writing their own constitution before the United States hands over sovereignty, mainly because of resistance from Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.

Promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia is one of the most difficult long-term goals of the war on terrorism, one that demands urgency but should also recognize the difficulty of quickly implanting Western civic values in tribal, post-authoritarian, or Islamic nations.

For multiethnic Afghans who have suffered decades of war, the new Constitution comes two years after a US-led coalition liberated the country from the Taliban. It reflects a compromise between those who saw the need for a strong executive to hold the country together and a need to share authority among minority groups led by regional warlords.

Even if the charter has flaws and contradictions, its main value lies in showing Afghans clearly want some form of democracy and are able to reach a broad consensus over time on how to run the country.

Those lessons must be remembered in coming months as Afghans try to hold an election amid continuing fighting with Taliban remnants and the likely intimidation by warlords. The international community should maintain a strong presence during the process, and provide more troops outside the capital to help create a peaceful environment for voting.

The current president, Hamid Karzai, is likely to win the election and continue to play the role of national unifier while commanding a new, all-Afghan military. He must also help work out the inevitable contradictions within the Constitution, such as a demand that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

While the document calls for equal rights between men and women in the newly named Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the conservative Islamic judiciary might keep women in ancient social strictures or reduce the minimum political role granted them in the charter. But if this issue is handled well, Afghanistan could become a model for mixing Islam and democracy, an essential step in the global war on terrorism.

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