Counting Afghanistan's blessings of liberation

A few words of personal preface: This column is being written "solo" this week.

For the past 14 years, my companion as I write this column has been my yellow Labrador, Holly. My regular dayjob is usually too frenetic for thoughtful column-writing and so I write either at home, or by returning to the office in the quiet of night or on a weekend. At home, Holly snuggled up under the desk chair in my study. When we went to the office she checked for any lingering crumbs from office snacks, then settled down in a spot where she could keep me constantly in view. Week in, week out, Holly has been there.

The good thing about writing a column with a dog is that she is always approving. Anguish in exasperation over a lead that isn't going right and she's there with a reassuring lick. Explode in frustration when your computer loses a vital paragraph and there's a warm nose on your knee. But last week, a few days after her 14th birthday, Holly ended her time in this earthly existence, leaving gracefully, her muzzle gently in my palm.

The love of a good dog is a wondrous thing, and her passing has caused me this week to be a little more reflective than usual on the human condition, in particular the cruel events that since Sept. 11 last year have changed the shape of our world.

* * *

As I ponder these events, two dramatic images stand out. One is of the smoldering, collapsing World Trade Center towers, taking with them hundreds and hundreds of innocent victims who left home routinely that morning, never to return to their loved ones. That is a terrible story of man's pointless inhumanity to man. But the other image of the past year that is etched in my memory is of jubilant Afghan crowds rushing to greet the Northern Alliance liberators of Kabul a year ago today. That is a moving story of a nation's liberation from the stifling grip of the Taliban and their murderous friends, Al Qaeda. That couldn't have happened without the support and commitment of the US, determined for reasons both practical and altruistic to end Al Qaeda's presence there.

Urging other nations recently to do more to help the new Afghanistan, President Bush declared: "We went into Afghanistan to free people, because we believe in freedom. We're helping people recover from living under years of tyranny and oppression. We're helping Afghanistan claim its democratic future."

Clearly, Afghanistan has a long way to go before that democratic future is assured. But life is far more agreeable than it was under the Taliban. Simple pleasures such as kite-flying and listening to popular music on the radio have been reinstated. Men need no longer wear beards. Women can go to school. Artists feel liberated. There's growing diversity in the press. An interim government is functioning in Kabul.

Immense problems remain. Warlords seek to maintain power. Outside Kabul, security is not assured. Highways are decrepit. Poverty and destruction abound after years of warfare. In the face of agricultural stagnation, opium production - ironically cut back under the Taliban's rule - is sharply up as farmers grow whatever will yield cash. Mr. Bush, once wary of nation-building, now pledges economic aid and reconstruction, but says other nations that could help are lagging. Critics in Afghanistan say nobody is doing enough.

Still, Afghanistan is a lot better off than it has been in years. The US and other countries are training a national Army and police force that should improve security. Interim President Hamid Karzai is proving impressive. A new constitution is to be drafted over the next six months, then debated, and then put before a grand council, or loya jirga, for ratification. A general election would follow.

Despite Afghanistan's lingering challenges, American intervention has transformed it from a country in the grip of an oppressive tyranny to one limping along in a positive direction. That is something to appreciate as Kabul celebrates the first anniversary of its liberation.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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