Whether American troops can leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later depends on democracy's gains in that war-ravaged country – and the gains of women, too.
Thursday's elections for president and local councils were such a gain – seen especially in the turnout of women to vote in defiance of Taliban threats of retaliation. In some places, women were 60 percent of voters – predictable in part because women far outnumber men in voter registration in many regions – although their presence at voting booths in the Taliban-infested south was low.
Why such a large female turnout in some areas despite a low turnout overall?
Having lived under Taliban rule until the 2001 US invasion – and now facing a Taliban resurgence – women in Afghanistan are eager to keep what few rights they now have.
As in many Muslim countries, advances for Afghan women are critical to preventing a takeover by Islamic terrorists or to reduce their backward influence. They deserve the world's support, such as the threefold increase in US aid – to $250 million – for Afghan women and girls promised by the Obama administration.
The US military, too, has made a point of dispatching female soldiers to talk to women in their homes. "It is important for the women of Afghanistan to know we are here to listen and help them," said one female marine.
Just seeing US women on troop patrol in boots and uniform is sure to have an impact. During the American Occupation of Japan after World War II, Japanese women were emboldened to raise their status in part by seeing American women driving cars.
But it is the few Afghan women who have gained political prominence who are making the most difference. Two of the 41 presidential candidates were women, and a record number of women ran for provincial councils. (Official results are not due until September.) By law, a quarter of parliament must be women.
One leading male presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, showed up to vote with his wife – quite a surprise in a society that segregates voters by their gender. "Men and women in this country have a responsibility and it's the destiny of everybody, not just men in this country," Dr. Abdullah told the Monitor.
One foreign female reporter, after asking an Afghan woman why she voted for President Hamid Karzai, was told: "Because he is a liberal. Without him, you wouldn't be here without a burqa."
Millions of Afghan girls can now go to primary school, although few go on to high school and the Taliban is burning down many schools for girls. In April, a prominent women's activist, Sitara Achikzai, was murdered, presumably by the Taliban.
The mixed and precarious gains for women in Afghanistan were particularly threatened in July by a law approved by Mr. Karzai and which brought protests by Afghan women. The law, which was specified for only the country's minority Shiites, essentially allows wives to be treated as property by their husbands – despite a Constitution that calls for gender equality. One provision allows husbands to deny food or money to a wife if she does not provide sex.
Democracy and rights have a long way to go in a country with deep-rooted traditions in a tribal, patriarchal culture. This election, the second since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, is only a step down a long path, one aided by the presence of US and other NATO forces.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has placed women's rights at the center of US foreign policy. And in the historic clash of radical Islam and women's rights, no other place could be considered ground zero for such a cause than Afghanistan.
If so many Afghan women were willing to risk their lives to vote in this latest election, the world should stand by them.