Soon after he became president, Barack Obama ended the "democracy promotion" in Muslim countries begun by George W. Bush. His secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, spoke only of three D's in foreign policy – defense, diplomacy, and development.
Democracy was not on the list.
But an important election this Thursday in Afghanistan is pushing Mr. Obama toward the neoconservative idea of using force to promote democracy and freedom as a bulwark against Islamic terrorism. Not only has he sent a surge of troops to Afghanistan, he is making sure US soldiers prevent the Taliban from attacking polling stations, threatening voters, and otherwise ruining the vote for president and local councils.
"Today, our troops are helping to secure polling places for this week's election so Afghans can choose the future they want," Obama said in a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.
The Taliban see this election as a violation of Islam and threaten to chop off the ink-stained finger of anyone who casts a ballot. Recent US assaults on Taliban strongholds are Obama's attempt to make sure the election is free and fair – and conducted without fear. Such a defense of democracy is essential if Afghanistan is to not again become a sanctuary for international terrorists, especially Al Qaeda.
In 2004, when Afghanistan held its first presidential election in history, the Taliban bowed to the wishes of Afghans and largely let the vote take place. But now the former rulers-turned-insurgents are stronger in number and influence – and were even able to set off a bomb near the US Embassy in Kabul on Saturday.
An estimated 12 to 16 percent of voting stations may be closed because of Taliban violence and intimidation. A low voter turnout would reduce the legitimacy of the election outcome. The government of President Hamid Karzai has tried to bribe local Taliban leaders to get them to ignore their commanders' orders to disrupt the voting. As a result, top Taliban leaders are reportedly rotating low-level commanders to areas where they won't be inclined to follow the wishes of local Afghans to let them vote.
On election day, US and other NATO forces will back up Afghan security forces as up to 17 million people may try to vote. The election is the first to be run by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission. If this combined force of 300,000 troops and police proves insufficient, it will be another sign of the need for even more foreign deployments against the insurgency.
If, however, the voting is successful and the next president is considered legitimate, Afghanistan will achieve a bit more stability – perhaps allowing the government to negotiate low-level Taliban into quitting their cause.
The winners in this election need a strong democratic mandate to govern well and to reduce the corruption and incompetence of the current government. That mandate won't be possible without American boots on the ground and near the ballot boxes.