Less than a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, the Bush administration, in an effort to go after Osama bin Laden, launched military operations against the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan. A scant three years later, Afghanistan has inaugurated its first democratically elected president, Hamid Karzai.
The historic political transformation of Afghanistan - from a country with no democratic traditions ruled by an authoritarian regime of Islamic fundamentalists to a state which drafted a constitution and followed that with nationwide democratic elections - is noteworthy for many reasons, not least of which is the speed with which it happened.
Yes, the international community played a huge role in this transformation, backing democratic change with billions in economic and reconstruction aid, political advice and security assistance.
18,000 American troops are still in Afghanistan.
, said "Afghanistan has been transformed from a haven for terrorists to a steadfast ally in the war on terror."
Everyone recognizes the ongoing nature of the fight. Karzai, in his inaugural remarks to a crowd of visiting dignitaries including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was not silent on the subject.
"With international cooperation," said Karzai, "We can root out terrorism from Afghanistan."
Karzai has more than a passing interest in ridding the country of the terrorist threat since he has survived at least two assassination attempts in the past two years. In his remarks, Cheney said: "Freedom still has enemies here in Afghanistan, and you are here to make those enemies miserable."
Aside from remnants of the Taliban and some elements of al Qaeda which continue to be a problem, "those enemies" include Afghanistan's drug lords and a bumper crop of opium poppies, from which a great deal of the world's heroin supply is derived.
Kicking the twin habits of living off of a drug-related economy and fighting influential regional warlords for power will be an uphill battle for Karzai, even with the international support he enjoys.
The Bush administration, which gave $26 million this year to drug eradication programs, says it is going to throw many millions more into the fight, but, given earlier efforts in South America, administration experts know money alone will not do the job.
The State Department's deputy spokesman, Adam Ereli, this week called poppy cultivation a "major problem" and said "Nobody is looking at this through rose-colored or opium-colored glasses. It's a problem." But one of the reasons the administration is upping the ante in money to fight this problem is, said Ereli, is "because it threatens a lot of what has been achieved to date."
Cautioning reporters not to "paint too bleak a picture," Ereli called Afghanistan's presidential inauguration "a major landmark in the history of Afghanistan and the history of the region, and due note should be taken of it, what it represents in terms of political, social development that a country can go in a little more than three years… in a very short period of time from a feudal theocracy to a functioning democracy. And who would have thought?"
Who would have thought, indeed. But that's just what Secretary of State Colin Powell is thinking about Iraq's future. Speaking with university students in Sofia, Bulgaria, Powell, referring to Afghanistan's budding democracy marked by Karzai's inauguration, said: "We want the same thing in Iraq."
"It's a more difficult situation," said Powell, "The insurgency is more difficult than the one in Afghanistan was, but it's the same goal that we have. Let the people of Iraq decide how it will be governed. Let not those people who set car bombs and murder innocent people decide who will run a country. That's not the 21st century world that we all want. "
Iraq's elections are set for January 30th. We'll see soon enough if the Bush administration and the international effort to bring democracy to Iraq succeeds in even a faster time frame than it did in Afghanistan or whether the bleak security picture there will prevent a replay of this week's democratic success story.
By Charles M. Wolfson