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Afghans' presidential election is a victory for the free world

WASHINGTON — Good news is no news. That's why the most historic development of this news-drenched year has not been on front pages and hasn't led TV newscasts.

Against all dire predictions and threats from terrorists, Afghanistan — breeding ground of al-Qaida under the medieval rule of Taliban fundamentalists — has just held the first presidential election in its bloodstained history.

The winner was Hamid Karzai, 46, a politician of the majority Pashtuns, who emerged with 55 percent of the 8 million votes cast. The runner-up received 1.2 million votes; after grumbling about a few hundred stuffed ballot boxes, Muhammad Yunus Qanooni, a hero of the minority Tajik population, on Tuesday conceded Karzai's victory.

A bigger winner was the Afghan people. Their men — fierce nationalists who used U.S. munitions to humiliate the Red Army, thereby hastening the demise of the Soviet Union — had fallen victim to regional dissension and Taliban fanatics supported by Arab terrorists. Their women were hidden at home and treated like slaves. Now, thanks to the U.S.-led intervention and their own willingness to fight for freedom, Afghans lined up to vote in the first election in that nation's history.

The biggest winner of this unfettering event is the cause of democracy in the world, and especially in this region, which much of the West assumed was too culturally backward to express a longing for freedom.

We should not be so wrapped up in our own political campaign to fail to recognize the power of this message: If the loosely connected Afghan tribes can do majority rule and minority respect, so could the more literate Iraqis, numerous Egyptians, rich Saudis and misled Palestinians.

American and British Wilsonian idealists can hold their heads high today; the defeatists who presume to call themselves realists were defeated.

It came about, first, because American power — and our vengeful will to do justice after 9/11 — made it possible. Our long-range and naval air power and Special Operations forces provided decisive backing to the indigenous Tajik Northern Alliance resistance. With prodigious economic-political pressure, U.S. diplomats induced Pakistan to double-cross its Taliban ally and join our war on the terrorist haven.

It came about, second, because we had a trio of Afghan-Americans in the diaspora who could step into the transition without appearing to be occupiers: The neocon Zalmay Khalilzad became our ambassador in Kabul, joined by Ashraf Ghani of Johns Hopkins University as minister of finance and Ali Ahmed Jalali of the Voice of America as interior minister.

Charles Fairbanks Jr. notes in the current Weekly Standard that all three will have to bail out as local Afghans take full charge, but nation-building requires talented emissasies who speak the language and relate to the people.

As those who believe that democracy stands no chance in Iraq are quick to point out, Afghan progress also came about because we brought along NATO allies girded with a U.N. blessing. There is no denying this has played an important part in success so far, though not the central part.

More of the credit should go to President Bush's shrewd choice of a leader who turned out to be Afghanistan's choice this week. Karzai is one gutsy, deft and appealing politician. With his appointments and parceling out of U.S. aid, for the past three years he has split the ethnic opposition, undercut the most dangerous warlord and built a coalition that ran a winning campaign.

The crucial moment came early, I'm informed, as he was juggling political plums to create a governing coalition, when a group of tribal elders told him bluntly: "If you have the U.S. behind you, we're behind you; otherwise, no." We were there for him; now he's there for democracy, and we should invest strongly in his nation's growth.

A nascent republic needs its Ataturk, its Nehru, its Adenauer. With his overwhelming election mandate, the shyly charismatic Karzai can better combat the corrupting power of the poppy growers and then turn to the next stage in building a democracy: electing a parliament.

The embodiment of this year's good news is an optimist. I asked him recently when he expected Osama bin Laden to be caught. He replied, "You can't be a fugitive forever."

New York Times News Service