Three years ago yesterday, the process of democratizing Afghanistan began in earnest, as the U.S. military launched airstrikes against the Taliban dictatorship in response to its sheltering of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. With the subsequent ouster of that regime, Washington achieved its most basic goal: ending Afghanistan's status as a safe haven for Islamist terrorist training camps.
Tomorrow marks another critical milestone in Afghanistan's journey away from despotism and toward a democratic future, as up to 10.6 million people will go to the polls in the country's first direct presidential election. More than 40 percent of those registered are women. Voters can select one of up to 18 presidential candidates representing a wide variety of political parties and ethnic groups. Parliamentary elections are expected to take place in the spring.
The favorite is interim President Hamid Karzai, who became head of the country's transitional government in December 2001. Since the Taliban fell, the country has established a new constitution that is one of the most enlightened in the Muslim world. It creates a presidency, a two-house national assembly and an independent judiciary.
Earlier this week, Mr. Karzai appealed to rank and file members of the Taliban to abandon their efforts to employ terrorism to disrupt the voting. His statement came just hours after the Taliban attempted to assassinate Mr. Karzai's running mate, vice presidential candidate Ahmad Zia Masood, in the northeastern part of the country. While Mr. Masood's convoy was travelling from the airport to a rally site, a roadside bomb went off. It killed two people but missed the candidate.
The attempt on Mr. Masood's life was just the latest in a yearlong campaign of terror launched by the Taliban and al Qaeda in an effort to sabotage the voting.
Three major forces threaten the emergence of an enlightened, representative government in Afghanistan: terrorists, drug lords and war lords. As Thomas Gouttierre, dean of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska (one of this nation's leading experts on Afghanistan), told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently: "Though routed out of their strongholds and camps after 9/11, replenished and reorganized elements of Al Qaida and the Taliban remain at large and constitute a threat, both real and symbolic, to the overall reconstruction effort. They gain financial support from drug interests. They threaten them with death or other bodily harm if they teach, go to school, register to vote or assist the election process, or appear to side with the government."
Tomorrow's election in Afghanistan is another milestone in the war against Islamist terrorism. Like their ideological soul mates in Iraq, look for the terrorists in Afghanistan to step up their efforts to murder as many of their fellow Muslims as possible in the coming days to prevent them from establishing a representative government.