What Afghanistan needs

President Obama believes Afghanistan is the place we have to stand up to defeat terrorism. Like Bush in Iraq, he hopes to use the U.S. military to help create an atmosphere in which Afghans can establish a government and society capable of standing up to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Accomplishing this in Iraq was tough enough, and the jury is still out on whether the project will succeed or survive a withdrawal of our forces. Militarily and politically, Afghanistan could make the Iraqi adventure seem like a walk in the park.

While various religious and secular leaders have tried for centuries to create a nation out of the polyglot population we know as Afghanistan, none have been successful for long. It is a nation largely because it bordered the British and Russian empires at the end of the 19th century; both agreed, after nearly a century of jockeying, to borders that may or may not have made sense then or now.

Even after agreeing on borders that still stand, London and Moscow continued maneuvering for control until, exhausted after World War I, they decided to let the Afghans fend for themselves. In the decades that followed, Afghan leaders and would-be leaders fought and toppled one another until the Soviet Union intervened to save a regime friendly to Moscow. This effort fell apart, like the Soviet Union itself, and the Afghanistan that survives has proven as difficult to hold together and govern as ever.

Once the Taliban government came to power, the country put out a welcome mat for anti-Western terrorists. Convinced that the worst of them were operating out of Afghanistan, the U.S. after Sept. 11 decided to take out the Taliban government. In its place, we encouraged Afghans to build a cohesive, non-hostile and perhaps democratic nation.

For the last eight years, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has been trying to do just this under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The fact that he has survived this long is a testament to his courage and dedication to succeed.

The country is still a mess, and corruption continues, but Afghanistan today under Karzai has a democratic constitution, increased school attendance and a growing business sector. Not a bad record, given his nation’s history and the forces arrayed against him.

Still, there is much to be done. A resurgent Taliban operating in part from sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan controls significant parts of the country, and security remains a problem. Reconstruction projects are plagued with the corruption endemic to the region, and many of Karzai’s supporters are beginning to wonder if he will ever complete the job he began.

If Afghanistan is to move to the next stage, personal security and the rule of law must be translated from theory to reality and those who are being asked to “buy” into the new system have to see that they will be treated fairly by a government that walks the walk of a democracy rather than by one whose leaders simply talk the talk of peace, freedom and democracy.

As president, Karzai has laid the foundations for a successful Afghanistan, but much remains to be done. Implementing his vision will require a new generation of Afghans with different talents, a generation that can build on the foundations.

The real crisis in nations attempting to move from authoritarian to democratic rule comes when leaders begin to confuse their interests with those of the nation itself. Such leaders refuse to give up the reins of power voluntarily, and the result is either a return to authoritarian rule or spiraling violence and governmental transition by coup and civil war. That path has been traveled over the centuries by dozens of Afghan rulers, with predictable results. It is a path that President Karzai must avoid lest all he has accomplished be lost.

The real test of any democracy comes when its first popularly elected leader has to decide whether to give up the reins of power when the time comes. That time has come for Afghanistan. Afghans will go to the polls this fall, and, after eight years, the single greatest contribution President Karzai could make to the success of a nascent democracy might well be to announce, as the first U.S. president did more than two centuries ago, that eight years is enough.

If Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy is to survive, Karzai should encourage others to step forward to continue the work he has begun. If he does so and it works, he will be remembered by his countrymen for generations with the same awe with which George Washington is remembered here.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.