THERE JUST WAS an election in Afghanistan. A democratic election, more or less. American, European, and U.N. observers agreed on this, although it will take two weeks to count all the votes in trackless mountain regions. It may take even longer to investigate possible election violations. Turnout was enormous, defying neo-Taliban violent attempts to prevent voting. The major controversy that arose sprang from election officials' confusion about the indelible ink used to mark the fingers of those who voted; many voters' fingers were marked with ordinary ink that washed off, permitting them to vote again (assuming they were able to produce an unpunched registration card). Anyone who has monitored elections in backward countries will know that such problems are common. Nevertheless, this prompted all 15 of President Hamid Karzai's rivals for the presidency to announce they were boycotting the election, before later backing down.

A Canadian paper, in one of the most negative reports, said "many voters in the [provincial] capital city of Faryab were coerced to vote for General Rashid Dostum, the warlord whose militia has a stronghold in northern Afghanistan." In some areas false ballots were reportedly cast for Karzai, the acting president and frontrunner, by local warlords and officials eager to curry favor with him, reflecting the same zeal that resulted in 170 percent registration in Paktia province. Knight Ridder reported that many villages were like the one in "the Shomali Plain, north of the capital Kabul, [where] male-dominated traditions, high illiteracy rates and tribal allegiances conspired to silence the voices of thousands of Afghans, especially women, who'd been eager to vote." But overall, as even a French leftist paper had to confess, "In spite of some cases of fraud, the first free presidential election took place Saturday without major incident and with massive participation." As Donald Rumsfeld said, "It's breathtaking."

Five years ago, even a half-free election would have seemed wildly improbable in Afghanistan. Of all the ancient Muslim lands, Afghanistan was, with Yemen and Oman before oil, the most medieval. The first public dropping of the veil--a real, all-concealing burka, not the flirtatious little compromise the Islamists now label hijab--took place in 1959, a century after the women of Cairo and Istanbul began to wear Paris fashions. At the end of the 1970s the Afghan Communists--the 2 percent of atheists in a very Muslim country--seized power. Resistance emerged all over, the Soviet Union invaded, and the country was engulfed in 20 years of war. The Soviet garrisons soon retreated to the major cities, and the even more primitive rural areas were left to develop in fundamentalist isolation, punctuated by Soviet forays destroying everything in their path.

Early in this extended period of violence, almost the entire trained and Westernized elite fled the country, leaving it essentially without technical experts. What little modern infrastructure existed--roads, irrigation canals, coal mines, factories, schools--was obliterated bit by bit; it was a major feat for the Taliban to restore the electricity in one Afghan city. The resistance was magnificent, but it destroyed the fragile unity of Afghanistan, splitting the country along ethnic and Muslim sectarian lines. At its best, the resistance was fueled by fundamentalism, xenophobia, and jihad. At its worst, the mujahedeen degenerated into bands of robbers plundering and tormenting the country they had saved from the Soviets.

In the mid-90s, neighboring Pakistan had had enough. Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, organized the Taliban to rein in the disorder, bring Afghanistan under ethnic Pashtun control again, and so restore Pakistan's influence. Pakistan itself was a crucial part of the Taliban and al Qaeda problem. In the late 90s, the Taliban, with Pakistani money and planning, succeeded in conquering the whole country save a few mountain patches where guerrillas of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance wearily fought on. The Taliban, dominated by Pashtun village mullahs without political experience or education, returned to a long tradition of symbiosis between extremist Islamic movements and medieval failing-state structures. Thus, the Taliban added ideological objections to modernity to the already far advanced destruction of modern institutions and infrastructure; it succeeded in eliminating some of the aspects of modern life that survived, such as television. These factors, piled on top of each other, year after year, made Afghanistan perhaps the worst failed state in the world. Every political scientist would have laughed at the idea that such a country could be a candidate for democratic regime change. I certainly did.

AS AFGHANISTAN DESCENDED into civil war between mujahedeen factions, the first Bush administration was faced with a decision about whether to continue trying to influence the country's evolution or to give up. The U.S. government gave up, echoing the realist consensus of the foreign policy establishment. Only Vice President Dan Quayle objected at the meeting where the final choice was made. Such a choice was entirely in accord with a 60-year tradition by which American foreign policy assumed that "vital interests" flow only from national power, wealth, and resources, not from their absence. Accordingly, the first post-Cold War decade issued in innumerable lists, prepared by Washington think tanks, classifying every part of the world under "vital interests," "important interests," and "peripheral interests." Afghanistan rarely figured. So it continued as a failed state, on a path that led to the training of thousands of jihadis on its soil, as well as the planning and ordering of the 9/11 attacks. When the Taliban state found itself without sufficient revenue, trained experts, or zealous soldiers, it turned to its ideological soul mate, al Qaeda.

Afghanistan became a base for international terrorism for a number of reasons. The first prerequisite, of course, was the existence of a network of international terrorist groups. To operate freely, these groups needed someplace as strange as Taliban Afghanistan. It was not a state in the sense of modern international law, with "sovereignty" over an entire territory, and a monopoly of armed force within precise borders. The multinational military and terrorist units that the Taliban had welcomed, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, obviously limited its sovereignty. Only after the war did we realize that the Taliban in fact needed these units, because the regime had no regular army or any legal procedure for calling up citizens to serve. Instead, youths were grabbed on the streets and forced into army units. The existence of an unresolved struggle for control of the country tremendously weakened the international pressures that act to normalize states--persuading them to accept international norms of behavior, to take responsibility for what happens on their territory, and to expel criminals and terrorists. The terms "weak state" and "failed state" are not really adequate to describe this phenomenon. What is plain is that before 9/11 and George W. Bush, public discussion of the goals of our foreign policy was far too concerned with strong states that might be rivals, and not enough concerned with dangers that arise from weakness.

It may also be true that terrorist groups like that of Osama bin Laden could not operate without a third precondition: support, direct or indirect, from powerful, competent states, such as Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In situations of unresolved conflict or semi-statehood, as in Afghanistan, these patron states can maneuver freely and deniably. Frequently such patron states operate not to strengthen failing states, but to keep them weak and dependent.

Then, from this Afghanistan, America was struck in our homeland, for the first time seriously since 1941. To respond effectively required not just war plans--which usually take years to prepare--but a departure from a foreign policy tradition taken for granted for two generations. This was the administration's first great challenge.

Meeting it was Bush's first great feat. The administration then realized the crucial function the Taliban performed for al Qaeda, and the crucial function Pakistan performed for the Taliban. Having seen this, Bush rapidly identified the need to overthrow the Taliban, not just intimidate it, and understood that the failing character of its state could be exploited. Somewhat later the administration came to see that if another failed state were left in the Taliban's place, the problem would repeat itself. Moreover, the administration realized that the United States would need bases in Pakistan and in Central Asia.

Bush's second feat was to grasp at once the need to wage war, to achieve victory by destroying the enemy's capacity to fight, and not just trifle with the kind of "coercive diplomacy" employed long ago against North Vietnam and more recently against Serbia. To appreciate the magnitude of Bush's achievement one has to step back and consider the long, slow process of historical change since 1918. In the twentieth century, a series of exhausting wars turned the developed countries against war itself, while the risks of nuclear weapons during the Cold War channeled conflict into lower-level struggles, often undeclared, in what came to be called the Third World. In wide areas, such as Europe and North America, it eventually became hard to imagine war. Overall, this development is a blessing to mankind, but it removes a potent instrument from those available to statesmen. After 9/11, Bush could have continued the now comfortable approach of turning to one of the beguiling substitutes for war. Instead, the president decisively defined his response to 9/11 as a "war on terrorism." The administration has been censured for lumping together unrelated terrorist and insurgent movements for diverse goals, and in cases such as Chechnya this criticism has some merit. But to declare a "war on terrorism" was by far the easiest way of mobilizing the U.S. government, other governments, and the public in a decisive effort against new dangers. The very diffuseness of the threats was a reason to adopt a conceptual means of aggregating them. We do not know that any other approach could have worked.

ON OCTOBER 7, 2001, President Bush began his military campaign against the Taliban's Afghanistan--in the shadow of tremendous difficulties. The United States neither shared a border with Afghanistan nor could get there by sea, and no war had ever been successful without these preconditions. We had no friends, having dishonorably abandoned the Afghans who'd fought the last great battle of the Cold War for us. And Afghan history suggested a deeper problem.

All the armies that had ever occupied it (most recently the British in 1839 and 1877-80 and the Soviet army after 1979) had triggered the xenophobia of the Afghans and been ousted, or had left early for fear of Afghan reaction. On top of this, the Bush administration had little intelligence on Afghanistan and no plans for dealing with it, except small covert schemes, all dismissed as impracticable, to snatch Osama bin Laden and modestly aid the Northern Alliance, the only foes who still held out. War plans are so complex that they usually take years to prepare, time that Bush did not have. American forces, structured as they were for fighting massive Soviet or North Korean attacks, were not appropriate to the task in Afghanistan. Moreover, the United States had never developed much capability to fight a "proxy war" by aiding indigenous forces. This struggle was neither diplomatic nor military, but both inextricably mingled; such wars are notoriously the hardest to fight.

All these obvious difficulties hung over the black, impenetrable future as Bush gave the order to begin. He knew he was taking huge risks. Those who make the facile case that Afghanistan was the necessary and proper war while Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" glibly ignore the risks Bush took in doing anything in Afghanistan.

The first step in waging the Afghan war was to neutralize the enemy's allies and acquire allies and bases for ourselves. To wage war on the Taliban, it was essential not just to shift, but to reverse the alignment of Pakistan, an enormous challenge. Pakistan was the Taliban's organizer and patron, while friction and sanctions over nuclear weapons, Islamization, human rights, and democracy had distanced the United States from our old ally. Moreover, Pakistan was itself a failing state, unstable politically, with vocal and rancorous Muslim extremist groups having deep roots both in the society and in the army. American military action or excessive pressure risked shattering the country's precarious order and bringing down the military government, with the extremists poised to take over or to submerge our anti-Taliban effort in wider chaos.

By sending Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Pakistan's military boss, General Pervez Musharraf, with essentially an ultimatum--making big threats and promises, and postponing all secondary issues--President Bush was able to reverse Pakistan's entire foreign policy. Musharraf shifted in a few days from ally and sustainer of the Taliban to our ally, providing bases and intelligence, and turning over many al Qaeda leaders including eventually the planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Not since 1939 has world politics seen a reversal of alliances so sudden and stupefying.

Since the Iraq war, there has been endless whimpering about President Bush's arrogant refusal to line up allies. Somehow Pakistan is never mentioned. Pakistan was the indispensable ally to deal with Afghanistan and al Qaeda, and simultaneously the ally hardest to win. Bush won this ally. (He also won Central Asian bases and cooperation, much against the wishes of regionally dominant Russia and China.) In fact, President Bush converted Pakistan from probably the most important state sponsor of terrorism in the world to a major partner in the war against terrorism. There are incessant complaints that Pakistan's cooperation is not wholehearted, and in themselves some of these may be justified. But as so often with criticisms of established policy, proper criticism tends to omit the entire background that makes everything else possible. Any cooperation out of Pakistan at all--much less the extensive cooperation we now enjoy--is an enormous asset. That we have it is not good fortune, but the result of a titanic effort of will on the part of President Bush's team.

The Military Campaign. The drama of Pakistan's reversal of roles can most readily be seen in conventional military terms. The Taliban's best forces were largely deployed against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan's Northeast, on the far side of the massive Hindu Kush mountain range. These forces relied on a long supply line that wound southwest, around the mountains, and then east again into the Taliban's Pashtun heartland. By the sudden, unexpected volte-face of Pakistan, President Bush took the Taliban on its unprotected, tender flank. The medieval Taliban fighters had relied on Pakistan for most of their financial and technological support, logistics, and operational planning. All this they suddenly lost, creating deep anxiety in the minds of the Taliban that goes far to explain their swift collapse.

American strategy then turned to the destruction of al Qaeda and Taliban assets by long-range, precise air attack. The same accuracy enabled these attacks to largely avoid killing civilians and wrecking their homes. None of this was easy, because the use of airpower normally requires a vast logistics and basing infrastructure to keep the planes in the air. The Bush administration had to improvise, which is not the American "way of war." Pilots used to 90-minute training flights found themselves flying seven-hour missions from carriers in the North Arabian Sea, refueling six times in the air.

The continuing and apparently inconclusive air war produced, by early November, criticism as intense as Bush now faces on Iraq. A host of military experts like the University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer decried "massive military force" as something that "makes the problem worse." Bruce Ackerman, a law and political science professor at Yale, argued that "our international problems are utterly intractable, and the sooner we recognize this, the better. . . . We should figure out clever ways to declare victory at the first decent opportunity and remove our troops."

On the ground, the CIA and State Department were most comfortable working with Afghanistan's Pashtun ethnic group, usually with and through Pakistan. The Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance, however, had the only substantial forces in the field against the Taliban. About two weeks into the campaign, the National Security Council boldly decided to give more help to the Northern Alliance, in return for a promise that it would not enter Kabul. U.S. Forward Air Observers were sent to join the Northern Alliance troops, B-52s were ordered in, and the bombing of the Taliban front lines began. The United States arranged for exiled Northern Alliance warlords to return to the tribal areas, stirring up rebellion, and bought ethnic Pashtun warlords in the south. These new measures produced a swift reversal in the ground war. The Taliban lost Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif, Taliqan, Herat, Jalalabad, and Kabul in quick succession. Al Qaeda's forces fled east to Tora Bora and then to sanctuaries in the ungoverned Tribal Areas across the Pakistani frontier. As most Taliban troops simply ran away, their leadership retreated to their original center around Kandahar. U.S. forces occupied a base in the desert south of Kandahar in late November, and began to surround the city with American, coalition, and Afghan warlord forces. On December 7, the Taliban were forced to abandon Kandahar, their last stronghold. For the first time in history, a distant, landlocked country had been conquered by air, covert action, and proxy forces alone.

The brilliant performance of the Bush administration must be traced ultimately to the president's desperate sense of urgency after 9/11. Bush and his team felt they had to conquer the terrorists' sanctuary before they struck again. That urgency now pervades Bush's wider war on terrorism. Can we hope for a similar spirit from John Kerry? The urgency--and it seems very real--that fuels his supporters is an urgent need to reverse what they see as Bush's distortions of U.S. foreign policy.

The pace and improvised character of this amazing victory left Afghanistan's future stability in great doubt. Breaking their promise (with Russian support), Northern Alliance forces occupied Kabul on November 13 and began filling government positions with their ethnic kin. They gave the three most important ministries to three Tajiks from the same village in the Panjshir valley: Muhammad Fahim at Defense, Abdullah Abdullah at Foreign Affairs, and Yunis Qanuni at Interior, controlling the police. Well into 2002, more than 90 percent of the generals in the new Afghan National Army were Tajiks. Panjshiri Tajik domination of Afghanistan was inherently fragile: The Pashtuns, who had dominated Afghanistan from the 18th century to the Soviet invasion, were unlikely to accept it. For America, the danger lay in the fact that the Taliban had been a Pashtun movement; exclusion of the Pashtuns from the new arrangements was certain to revive the Taliban.

It is the very nature of war to set in motion an immense, indiscriminate process, like an avalanche. The United States did not join World War II intending to leave the Red Army on the Elbe or to weaken the last of the European great powers and inherit their role. To achieve the aim of victory, a power that unleashes war is compelled to accept many other consequences it did not seek. Most of all, the unpredictability of war flows from its nature as the only human activity where another side is trying to the death to prevent you from achieving your aims. The United States could chase al Qaeda from its Taliban sanctuary--and do so quickly, before another 9/11 attack--only by helping the Northern Alliance win. Then it was faced with Northern Alliance domination of Kabul, a lesser problem, but one that could gradually unravel everything achieved.

The best the United States could do at that point was (1) establish an international peacekeeping force, ISAF, that would act as a politically neutral source of order in the Afghan capital; (2) mobilize the international community behind a somewhat more balanced interim government and a process to create a still better one; and (3) mobilize the Afghan diaspora in the United States, a huge resource but one made up of individuals rather different from the newly medievalized society to which they returned. Throughout the Afghan war and the postwar reconstruction, the United States operated with support from a coalition. As of mid-2002, the troops protecting Afghanistan's peace included Americans, British, Germans, Danes, Canadians, Norwegians, Australians, and New Zealanders. Crucial support came from international forces stationed at the bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, forces of the United States, France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, and South Korea. Pakistan, Oman, Britain, and Turkey--as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE (both pried away from friendship with the Taliban by Bush)--gave crucial bases for Afghan operations. It was and is a truly international effort.

One side effect of international consensus was that no one party could control the normalization process. From the international conference in Bonn in December 2001 there emerged a complex process that was to begin with a Tajik-dominated Interim Administration. Bush, dealing from a weak hand on the ground, was able to keep our options open for the future by insisting on a largely unknown but CIA-connected Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, as chairman of the Interim Administration, and distributing some ministries to each of the Afghan factions. The U.N.-sponsored "Bonn Process" envisioned appointed commissions, then a Loya Jirga (a traditional quasi-consensus, but not democratic, process) that would choose a Transitional Administration, followed by another Loya Jirga to write a constitution, all leading up to democratic parliamentary and presidential elections in June 2004. These interim, transitional, and final governments with their assemblies, bureaucratic commissions, and democratic elections were amazingly unreal in the absence of any Afghan state, with warlords ignoring Kabul and living by the gun.

Democracy as the expected outcome seemed utopian to me at the time, and to many others. But this Bonn democratization process did not reflect the arrogant imposition of any "Wolfowitz strategy" by the Bush administration. When an "international community" that exists only nominally undertakes to impose political order in strife-torn lands, disagreeing about every political issue but united by the demand that the formula produced have some sort of legitimacy, democracy is by far the most likely outcome. Since the collapse of the contending Communist ideology, modern liberal democracy has become a kind of "default regime." The word "democracy" has come to stand for many inchoate aspirations to live a normal, prosperous life, as people in real democracies do. Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative simply applies this reality in a region where it has long been disregarded.

Among educated Pashtuns, particularly in the diaspora, the ethnic imbalance in the government permitted by the Bush administration produced a swell of support for the restoration of the old Pashtun king, Zahir Shah, deposed in 1973. The first opportunity for a mid-course correction presented itself with the "Emergency Loya Jirga" in June 2002. It is painful to recall that the United States allowed the dissident Pashtun delegates to be harassed by Northern Alliance secret policemen; the supporters of the king, including the finance minister, were punished by their ouster from the cabinet. President Karzai, with support from the U.S. government, was able to obtain Ashraf Ghani, a resident of Washington and highly professional longtime official of the World Bank, as the new finance minister. Karzai was officially blessed as transitional president, and Yunis Qanuni, one of the Northern Alliance triumvirate that had dominated the government, was ousted from the Ministry of Interior, to be replaced by a follower. The 2002 Loya Jirga was the nadir of American influence after the overthrow of the Taliban. It is not wrong to say that the Bush administration made many mistakes in Afghanistan, as in Iraq. But it also corrected them relatively quickly. Perhaps that is the best that can be done in a war of this kind.

After the Loya Jirga, with active operations against alQaeda and the Taliban still going on, Afghan experts outside and inside our government grew more and more troubled by the specter of Afghan instability. The fundamental problems were Northern Alliance domination of Kabul, the confinement of the new government's authority and ISAF's mandate to Kabul, and the domination of the rest of Afghanistan by warlords who were loathed by the bulk of the population for their exactions and arbitrariness. The government did not receive customs revenues from important ports of entry, such as Herat, controlled by the puritanical fundamentalist warlord Ismail Khan. The Karzai government had begun building a national army, but most military potential was in the hands of mujahedeen groups that obeyed their warlords and sometimes fought with each other. And, as could be expected, the Taliban and all the groups injured by its fall began a slow, stumbling recovery; guerrilla activity dubiously lumped together as "neo-Taliban" began to grow in the Pashtun south and east. The great danger was that the vast mass of now disenfranchised Pashtuns might eventually join them.

Outside the U.S. government, the problems were diagnosed and the case for a more assertive American policy made effectively by Marin Strmecki, vice president of the Smith Richardson Foundation, and Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former professional officer in the Afghan Royal Army who had risen to head the Persian Service of the Voice of America. Inside the government, awareness of the unsolved problems also grew. Perhaps the first sign of evolving U.S. policy was the declared willingness to expand the international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul, and the U.S. forces' establishment of small posts called PRTs in the provinces early in 2003.

Learning from Mistakes and Getting Serious. Secretary Rumsfeld's visit to Afghanistan in April 2003 seems to have brought the policy initiatives brewing within the government to fruition. In June 2003 President Bush decided on a new, serious effort to deal with the gathering instabilities. For the sake of bureaucratic peace, the policy was hardly highlighted when it was made public in September, and as a result we approach a decisive election with little public awareness of what President Bush's strategy is, or why it has been so successful.

The complexity of the new policy can be brought under two broad headings: increasing the legitimacy of the central government and changing the balance of power in the country. Toward the first objective, a core of the policy was achieving reasonable ethnic balance, above all in the cabinet, the army, and the police--giving greater power to the Karzai government. The Panjshiri Tajik minister of interior was dismissed, and replaced by Ali Ahmad Jalali. Half Pashtun and half Tajik, Jalali represents the assimilating character of traditional Afghan officialdom. But more important, Jalali, an American citizen, was willing to work closely with Karzai and U.S. officials to create a multiethnic counterpoise to the Northern Alliance-dominated army and weaken the warlords, whom he could appoint and dismiss as provincial governors. The first governor to be dismissed, in August, was an overbearing Pashtun bandit, Gul Agha Sherzai, in Kandahar province, the home of the Taliban, and he was followed by many others. Emboldened, Karzai and his followers, with American support, forced Minister of Defense Fahim to accept real ethnic balance in army ranks, and new deputies not beholden to Fahim were appointed to ensure it.

The new Afghan National Army had been Fahim's mujahedeen followers with grandiose new titles (one general was actually illiterate) and epaulets, poorly equipped and paid. The changes improved morale, as did the passage in October 2003 of the Bush administration's supplemental budget for Iraq and Afghanistan; the Afghan National Army and Police received $400 million. As multiethnic recruits were retrained and properly paid, the new army gradually became a serious force limiting the power of the Northern Alliance and the provincial warlords. At roughly the same time, American troops began to be deployed more often for strengthening the government, and not exclusively for chasing the remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda. European troops took over several of the PRTs in the provinces, which also put warlords on their best behavior. The biggest surprise was some limited success of the program to disarm mujahedeen private armies. Important allies of Marshal Fahim were moved away from Kabul, which diminished their ability to intimidate the formal government. Surprisingly, the Northern Alliance did not resist these changes by force; the power with which the Tajiks had overawed Kabul when the Taliban fled proved puny beside what Karzai and the United States could muster once Bush expressed his determination.

The new balance of power was consecrated by the Constitutional Loya Jirga, postponed from October, which actually met in December 2003. The first battle was over whether Afghanistan should have a parliamentary system, which the Northern Alliance sought, or a presidential system. The new coalition of aggrieved Pashtuns--including the king's supporters, secular modernists, and the general public hoping for order and economic growth--pushed through a victory for a presidential constitution that would empower Karzai. Karzai was also willing to appeal to the Pashtun mujahedeen, who had once been led by Hikmatyar, Khalis, and Sayyaf. All these were quite dubious figures, prompting the International Crisis Group to loftily question "the decision by the pro-Karzai camp to cultivate an ethnic support base" when, they said, "an alternative strategy could have avoided this polarization." Noble words. But can we drag a very traditional Muslim society, made chaotic by foreign and civil war, into modern democracy without employing any techniques from the traditional Afghan repertoire? Hamid Karzai and George W. Bush assumed not. They knew that something terrible would happen unless they exploited every opportunity. Does John Kerry know this?

The Constitutional Loya Jirga established the ground rules for the scheduled elections, presidential and parliamentary, in June 2004, with Karzai as the frontrunner. In March, Karzai announced that the presidential election would be postponed until September, then October, and the parliamentary election until Spring 2005. This had the reasonable justification that the remaining powerful warlords would intimidate voters for parliament, but it also strengthened Karzai's position for affecting the parliamentary elections. Coincidentally, it was in September that the last Northern Alliance heavy weapons menacing Kabul were removed under the disarmament program. There is little publicity about some of Karzai's maneuvers in the run-up to the presidential election, and only an Afghan could understand them fully. Karzai succeeded in splitting the ethnic Hazara constituency by selecting Karim Khalili as one of his vice presidents over his own minister of planning, Mohaqqeq, whom he dismissed in March. It seems that Karzai now began playing factions of the Northern Alliance against one another, promising to support the minister of education, Yunis Qanuni, as his new running mate, securing the public support of Rabbani (the father of the Northern Alliance), Foreign Minister Abdullah, and, nominally, Defense Minister Fahim against some other Panjshiri Tajiks.

Meanwhile, Karzai and his allies, with probable American connivance, began developing a threat against the second most powerful warlord, the Iranian-allied fundamentalist Ismail Khan in Herat, by stirring up his neighbor and enemy, the even more disreputable Pashtun warlord Amanullah Khan. Shortly before the election, at a moment when it would have maximum effect, Karzai seized the excuse of a bloody clash between Ismail and Amanullah to dismiss both, moving in fresh Afghan National Army and American forces to ensure that his edict was obeyed. This was a vivid demonstration for the warlords, immediately before the October 9 election, of one side of the Karzai presidency--raw power--and a test of the other side, Karzai's appeal to the Afghan public. At about the same time, the strengthened Karzai dropped Yunis Qanuni from his ticket, letting him emerge as the only serious rival for the presidency. Qanuni, however, no longer represented a united Northern Alliance, because Karzai substituted as his running mate a relative of the martyred leader of the Panjshiri Tajik resistance, Ahmed Shah Massoud.

On October 9, Afghans went to the polls. Turnout was enormous, as registration had been after a slow start. Already it seems clear that Karzai won by a substantial margin, after subtracting inevitable fraud both for and against him. He had employed many tricks from the armory of traditional Afghan intrigue to bring him to this point, but apparently without compromising the public's sense that he represented modernity, order, and prosperity. Time will tell whether Karzai's skill in Afghan skullduggery goes to his head, whether disorder spreads or fundamentalism revives, but this outcome is an astonishing victory for democracy.

The Conditions of Success. What were the preconditions for the triumph in Afghanistan? Surely they must hold lessons not only for the U.S. election, but for Iraq.

First, surely, we must record George W. Bush's will to victory, his sense of urgency, and his tenacity. It was not the media or the American public that repaired Afghanistan when it was drifting slowly toward disorder--we have ears only for what happened yesterday in Iraq. What a reproach! Second, the valor and inventiveness of the American fighting man, who found himself scrambling to win a war he never trained for.

A third absolutely necessary element of our success was our establishment of an Afghan government from almost the moment the Taliban fled. This went three-quarters of the way to neutralizing the Afghans' legendary xenophobia. A local government is always preferable in such a situation, because people enjoy blaming foreigners, but it is indispensable in a Muslim country. Muslims, who regard Islam as the final religion, feel a special resentment of non-Muslim rule. Thus in Iraq, the "neoconservative" concept of an initial government headed by an émigré leader like Ahmad Chalabi was fundamentally sensible. Hamid Karzai, a little-known émigré from a subordinate clan of the royal tribe of Pashtuns, seemed little different in January 2002. Indeed, the central error of our policy in Iraq was the supersession of this formula, with the installation of L. Paul Bremer to rule Iraq for two or more years with a vast U.S. bureaucracy. This was not a Bush or conservative formula; the conservative instinct, after the dreary welfare failure, is not to save people but to help them save themselves. As the Georgian thinker Ghia Nodia puts it, an oppressed people need to strengthen their "political muscles" by exercising them. The other formula, the one that crashed in Iraq, represents the consensus of the well-meaning international community: Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor embody it perfectly, and the first two have ended in an interminable malaise.

A fourth precondition of American success in Afghanistan was the willingness to play ethnic politics, and ruthlessly. Karzai was not well known initially, and could easily have been dismissed as an American puppet. But he turned out to be very able, and the raw material he used was the dissatisfaction of the former Pashtun rulers, left out in the cold by the defeat of the Taliban. Karzai was able to build his nominal head of state position into real power step by step because he symbolized the Pashtun role in government; he could bring supporters into government because they were Pashtuns, and Pashtuns craved the representation that democratic legitimacy also required. (After winning a free election, Karzai may need to turn his attention to the Tajiks.) Of course, President Bush had to be willing to flex U.S. muscle in Karzai's support. Similarly, in Iraq, we depend absolutely on playing ethnic politics with the Shias. We could lose them if the bizarre idea prevails that any election is invalid if the Sunni minority refuses to vote.

A fifth great contribution was the eventual willingness to use the Afghan diaspora. America finds itself unexpectedly with a quasi-imperial role in the world, and exposed to the resentment this inherently creates. It is not easy to impart to foreign peoples any sense of participation in the remote power that means so much in their lives. Luckily, it is only in America that someone can feel 100 percent American and 100 percent Afghan at the same time. American diasporas, especially the Muslim ones, are now becoming a precious resource, politically Americanized and efficient but possessing local knowledge, languages, and social access that no native American can ever earn. Three American citizens of Afghan birth form today crucial stones in the arch raised by Karzai and Bush: Zalmay Khalilzad, neoconservative strategist and now American ambassador in Kabul; Ashraf Ghani, Johns Hopkins anthropologist turned Afghan minister of finance; and Ali Ahmad Jalali, VOA service chief turned Afghan minister of the interior, with the power to deploy policemen and fire provincial governors. Eventually, we will see a backlash against American, secular, and diaspora influence, but at this stage it is essential.

Sixth and finally, President Bush's democratic objective in Afghanistan was, improbably, a precondition of success. After 25 years of war and degradation, most Afghans wanted what medieval peasants wanted: according to Hippolyte Taine, "a sheepskin coat for winter and not to be killed." In a very traditional society, these inchoate yearnings may not add up to democracy as technically defined, but the prosperous West and its democratic ways represent the direction most people crave. Nor should we dismiss the longing of simple people to determine their own fate. The warlords, including the Northern Alliance, were unable to offer any hope for a better life, and they represented the antithesis of democracy. Democracy provided the formula that united a largely secular Afghan government confined to the island of Kabul with millions of traditional but desperate Afghans of all ethnicities and Muslim schools. It gave President Karzai an appeal that went far beyond his ethnic base. It gave American intentions a legitimacy that transformed our mere power.

It is precisely President Bush's democracy-building agenda, however, that John Kerry attacked in a thematic speech. The election we face shortly will determine not only the will that goes into the war on terrorism, but also the commitment to democratization. After November 2, will America still have a foreign policy that makes our profoundest aspirations a means to our power, and our power a means to good?

AS WE HURTLE TOWARD November 2, our country is divided by a deep and passionate opposition between parties, as bitter as the factional divisions of Cavalier and Puritan so powerfully presented by Macaulay:

The effect of violent animosities between parties has always been an indifference to the general welfare and honor of the state. A politician, where factions run high, is interested, not for the whole people, but for his own section of it. The rest are, in his view, strangers, enemies, or rather pirates. The strongest aversion which he can feel to any foreign power is the ardor of friendship, compared to the loathing which he entertains toward those domestic foes with whom he is cooped up in a narrow space, with whom he lives in a constant interchange of petty injuries and insults . . .

Strong words. But this election more than anything else is about the conquest of two foreign lands, and the humbling of enemy potentates, a project still messy in many ways, but nevertheless an American success, so far, a victory--even in Iraq. Yet it is detested by George W. Bush's opponents to the bottom of their souls. So violent are our animosities at this moment that Bush's staggering achievement in Afghanistan is never debated as we approach the vote. It is reminiscent of the postwar debate over "Who lost China?" The passionate partisans who raised this cry in frenzied accusation never reflected: We were debating who lost China only because we had gained Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, France, and so forth. There seems to be some flaw in our national character, some self-hatred whereby we respond to the complexity of the real world by trying to exorcise the devil within ourselves. And the devil within ourselves we locate soon enough in our neighbor, in the other faction.

Rather than rending our national fabric with self-reproach, Election Day is a moment to take mature satisfaction in our country's real triumphs. In Afghanistan, four short years ago, murders were plotted for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon under the protection of the Afghan government. This year, the plotters and those who protected them have been driven from the country or into remote fastnesses, while vast hordes of Afghans turned out to pay homage to our ideals in a free election. As you part the curtains of your voting booth, remember them.

Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. is a research professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins/SAIS and director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

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