Monday, October 25, 2004

Given Afghanistan’s history, most observers hold their breath with each democratic triumph. The progress has been steadily mounting in Afghanistan, though, and the Oct. 9 presidential election marks a major turning point for the country and the region.

Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, was poised over the weekend to coast to victory in the presidential election, after winning a majority of votes. With 94 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Karzai had 4.2 million of the estimated 8.2 million ballots cast. That support is broad enough to avoid a run-off against Yunus Qanooni, who ran a distant second in the election with 1.2 million votes. Mr. Qanooni conceded defeat Sunday night. Mr. Karzai won’t officially be declared the winner until an investigation into voting irregularities is concluded, but the probe is unlikely to affect the election results. The investigation is confined to 12 ballot boxes.

While the election was marred with some irregularities and fraud, the turnout remains a testament to the Afghan people’s brave support of democracy. About 75 percent of the more than 10 million Afghans eligible to vote took part. In order to participate, many had to disregard threats from tribal leaders and risk terrorist violence.

Afghanistan remains an ethnically fractured country dominated regionally by tribal chiefs with their own militias. Mr. Karzai has had some surprising success in strengthening federal rule and confronting warlords. In July, Mr. Karzai sidelined the powerful tribal leader and Defense Minister Marshal Mohammad Fahim from his presidential ticket. That highly risky move has bolstered Mr. Karzai’s leadership and Afghanistan’s disarmament process, and appears to have paid electoral dividends.

In September, Mr. Karzai fired the powerful tribal leader Ismail Khan as governor of the western province of Herat when he resisted a plan to disarm and demobilize his militias. Mr. Karzai won by a comfortable majority in that province. These moves by Mr. Karzai against regional chiefs risked ethnic strife and instability, but, fortunately, they did not provoke any significant upheaval. Mr. Fahim, along with Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum, participated in the election.

Mr. Karzai clearly faces colossal tasks ahead, with a booming opium trade looming particularly large. He will also have to work hard to foster a national identity in a country where ethnic and tribal loyalties run deep. Next April’s parliamentary elections will be another test of Afghan’s democratic will and Mr. Karzai’s leadership. We wish him Godspeed.

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