Editorial | Afghans’ vote of confidence

The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday.

There’s hope for Afghanistan.

This perennial basket case of a nation, steeped in poverty and at war with itself for the past three decades, held national presidential elections Saturday in which almost 60 percent of voters participated.

Afghan men and women sent two important messages by standing in line, sometimes for hours, to cast ballots: First, they want true democracy and are willing to brave threats and bomb attacks to exercise their rights.

Second, the strong turnout marked a repudiation of the Taliban, which seeks to undo the elements of social progress achieved since the hard-line Islamist group’s ouster in late 2001.

It’s been easy over the past 12 years of U.S.-led foreign military occupation to lose track of what the Afghan people really want and value. They’ve argued loudly and violently over how much Western influence they support in their lives.

Increasingly, President Hamid Karzai has campaigned for a full withdrawal of U.S.-led forces, even though the Afghan army is nowhere close to being able to stand on its own.

Afghans have been justifiably outraged when errant U.S. drone strikes and other attacks have resulted in high civilian casualties. But neither that outrage nor the mercurial behavior of Karzai provides insights into what Afghans seek.

Saturday’s vote made clear that Afghans want representative democracy and see a route to stable leadership among the eight candidates seeking the presidency.

Otherwise, they simply would have stayed at home and not participated. Even more telling is the fact that more women ventured out as provincial candidates than ever before, including two competing to become vice president.

The election results probably won’t be known for weeks, but all three main contenders for president have said they would sign a post-2014 U.S. basing agreement. Karzai has refused.

No, this election was not a referendum on whether to extend the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. But Afghans are certainly aware that they enjoyed no such democratic freedoms in the chaotic years of Taliban rule.

U.S.-led international forces helped bring the relative stability that made this election campaign possible.

Despite whatever harm Afghans might think the Western military presence has caused, they clearly value the freedoms that accompanied it.

Afghanistan’s transition is not quite complete, largely because Taliban forces still roam the countryside, and Afghan security forces cannot yet keep the enemy at bay without U.S. logistical and training assistance.

That’s why a continued, U.S.-led military presence is necessary even though Americans — and Afghans — are more than tired of war.

Without this ongoing training and stabilization effort, all of the sacrifices and gains achieved since 2001 could be for naught.

Afghans have made clear with this vote that they want to continue moving forward.