The Magazine

Present at the Creation

From the December 20, 2004 issue: With Dick Cheney at the inauguration of Afghanistan's first elected president.

Dec 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 14 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Kabul, Afghanistan

NINETY MINUTES before he was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai emerged from a private meeting at his presidential palace with Vice President Dick Cheney to address reporters. "Presidential palace" is what the Afghans call it, anyway. It's a generous description. Many of the buildings in the heavily fortified compound are at least partially collapsed. Windows of the edifice that served as the backdrop for the brief press conference bear the scars of the fighting that was routine in modern Afghanistan.

Those battles have subsided in recent months. "Jihad fatigue" was the explanation from one burly State Department security contractor, a former Special Forces soldier with nearly two years in Kabul. His colleague, a more recent arrival, told me he is astonished at the improvements in the security situation in the two months since he came to Afghanistan.

Still, Taliban remnants had threatened to disrupt Karzai's inauguration, and every precaution was being taken to thwart those efforts. Those attending the ceremony were subjected to a full-body search. An American security official sporting the long hair and full beard that have become Special Forces trademarks guided bomb-sniffing dogs as they carefully examined each bag that visitors hoped to bring into the compound. Snipers were conspicuously perched atop each building in the complex; others peered out windows or the gaping holes in the bombed-out structures. Reporters using cell phones inside the palace grounds were scolded--cell phones are frequently used to detonate explosives.

Afghan workers wearing traditional, loose-fitting clothing and American-made sneakers scurried from building to building making last-minute preparations, their faces straining with effort as they hoisted unwieldy stacks of chairs onto their shoulders and darted toward the inaugural hall. U.S. Secret Service officials looked nervously about as they spoke into their wrists.

All of this activity came to a halt when Karzai, dressed in his flowing green silk coat and black lambskin hat, approached the microphone. He thanked Vice President Cheney for making the trip from Washington and then turned his attention to the American people:

Whatever we have achieved in Afghanistan--the peace, the election, the reconstruction, the life that the Afghans are living today in peace, the children going to school, the businesses, the fact that Afghanistan is again a respected member of the international community--is from the help that the United States of America gave us. Without that help Afghanistan would be in the hands of terrorists--destroyed, poverty-stricken, and without its children going to school or getting an education. We are very, very grateful, to put it in the simple words that we know, to the people of the United States of America for bringing us this day.

Sadly, most Americans never heard these words. Gratitude, it seems, is not terribly newsworthy. Neither is democracy. The Washington Post played Karzai's inauguration on page A-13, a placement that suggested it was relatively less important than Eliot Spitzer's decision to run for governor of New York or the decision of the U.S. government to import flu vaccine from Germany.

This is an embarrassment. The foreign policy of George W. Bush will likely be remembered for two highly controversial decisions: (1) to eliminate not only terrorist networks but also the regimes that sponsor them, and (2) to cultivate democracy in the region of the world long thought least hospitable to it.

These are radical goals. And we may ultimately fail to achieve them. But with the removal of the Taliban and especially the inauguration of Karzai as Afghanistan's first democratically elected president, they can no longer be dismissed as naive or unrealistic.

That was a point Cheney made repeatedly when I spoke to him for half an hour aboard Air Force Two. Establishing democracy in Afghanistan and the Islamic world, however imperfect, "is not a romantic or idealistic notion," he said. "In many respects it's a very pragmatic proposition."

Cheney called the Karzai inauguration "historic" and said, "I think it's one more example of the power of the idea of democracy, self-government, and the right of people to elect their own leaders."