Moral Victory in Afghanistan

For a president who once scoffed at US support for "nation building," George W. Bush should be proud of what his administration helped create in Afghanistan this week.

Under a giant white tent outside the capital, Kabul, more than 1,500 delegates of a supreme national council (loya jirga) elected a head of state or an interim government, the first step in creating the first, full Afghan democracy.

Not only is this remarkable in a country that has been in various states of war over the past 20 years, but it also took place in a country that has suffered the harsh rule of Communists; then warlords; then ruthless, radical, Islamists (the Taliban).

What other country had all three types of tyranny in the 20th century (plus a benign monarchy), only to see this burst of democracy in 2002?

And despite that wretched past, plus the continuing tribal ways of most Afghans, a woman was allowed to run for president in this historic political assembly, and more than 160 women took part. A year ago, women were not even allowed to work outside the home by the Taliban.

All this was happening while millions of Afghan refugees are returning home, and while most Afghans in the country were occupied with sheer survival, with no access to broadcasts to follow the epochal event.

The US war on the Taliban, of course, followed by the promise of $4.5 billion in international aid, helped focus the attention of Afghanistan's various leaders, including the former king, on the task of creating an elected government and trying to set aside their historic ethnic differences.

The US can't afford to let Afghanistan once again drift toward civil war and become a haven for Al Qaeda terrorists. American diplomats worked behind the scenes to nurture the elected government, and like the new government, the US must carefully balance stability against democracy.

Despite all these eye-moistening milestones, Afghanistan's natural political fault-lines – ethnicity, two types of Islam, and the power of local warlords – have the potential to create unrest. The US and its allies need to make good on their aid promises quickly and speed up the creation of a national Afghan army.

In April, Mr. Bush turned a corner in his foreign policy by promising to rebuild Afghanistan, in the same way the US helped rebuild postwar Germany and Japan. And that, he said, is the moral victory after a war.

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