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."
BEFORE THE CEREMONY BEGAN, two lines of Afghan soldiers assembled in front of the once-elegant building where the inauguration would take place. They stood at attention in their olive green dress uniforms as an older man paced purposefully in front of them, stopping every so often to bark instructions in the face of an unlucky soldier. A long red banner hung behind them from two large pillars. The words were in English, in large gold lettering: "December 7th celebrates the decision of the Afghan nation." Whoever made the sign had run out of room, and so the word "nation" was written in much smaller letters, tucked underneath "Afghan."
Cheney arrived first. He and his wife, Lynne, were greeted at the entrance and escorted to their seats in the front row. Karzai came minutes later in a black Mercedes with tinted windows. He accompanied a very frail King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who ruled Afghanistan from 1933 to 1973 and until recently lived in exile in Italy.
Media access to the inauguration ceremony was strictly limited, and most reporters watched it on big-screen televisions set up in a tent adjacent to the main building. With help from a very accommodating member of Karzai's media relations staff, I took my Sony "Cyber-shot" digital camera and posed as a photojournalist to gain access to the ceremony. We photographers were divided into two groups and led into opposite sides of the hall where we were to take pictures from against the side walls. But journalists--especially photographers--don't like to be told where they can and cannot go, and as soon as the ceremony began my new colleagues began inserting themselves into the crowd to get the best possible shots.
Ten rows from the stage was a larger-than-normal gap--maybe two feet--between the otherwise tightly packed rows of dignitaries. Several of the photographers used this gap to gain access to the front side of a large pillar in the middle of the crowd that provided a clear view of the stage. But in order to get to that spot the photographers shuffled directly in front of a row of five elderly Afghan men dressed in matching black and gold robes with white turbans. The Afghan elders briefly tolerated the presence of the photographers, but their weathered faces showed impatience when it became clear their view would be blocked for the entire ceremony. As the proceedings began, one of the old men, having had quite enough of the disruption, extended his leg across the opening, effectively blocking the photographers from coming or going. One, a young western woman wearing a traditional Afghan scarf, whispered complaints in English to the old man, who apparently did not understand and, in any case, wouldn't budge. She cursed him under her breath and resigned herself to standing along the wall with the rest of us. After several minutes, the man finally moved his leg: He and his colleagues from the new Afghan Supreme Court were called to the stage to administer the oath of office to Karzai.
Karzai's inaugural address was frequently interrupted by enthusiastic applause. Several members of the audience were moved to tears as he pledged to secure the country and prepare it for parliamentary elections. (Karzai's speech was also interrupted several times by the chirping of cell phones, and at least one foreign dignitary snored loudly as the new Afghan president spoke.) Karzai told the story of an elderly woman from the Farah province who came to a polling station with two voter's cards:
She went up to an election worker and declared that she wanted to vote twice, once for herself, and again for her daughter who, she said, was about to deliver her child and unable to come to the polling station to vote. "We are sorry, but no one can vote for another person, this is the rule," the elderly lady was told. So she voted--for herself--and left the station. Later in the day, the election worker was shocked to see the elderly woman back, this time accompanying her young daughter to the polling station. Her daughter carried her newborn baby, as well as her voting card which she used to cast her vote.
The measure of significance the Bush administration attaches to Karzai's inauguration is evident from the presence of Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney and his entourage traveled for 45 hours to attend the ceremony, flying from Andrews Air Force Base to Frankfurt, Germany, to Muscat, Oman, and then on to Kabul, where we were on the ground for only seven hours. We returned via Oman and Shannon, Ireland. (Spending nearly two full days in the air allowed us to take in nine movies, including Anchorman and First Daughter, a movie about a romance between a presidential daughter and her Secret Service agent. The Secret Service agents traveling with us dismissed the movie as unrealistic. "Like we would stand on top of her in a classroom," one scoffed.)
Cheney, who seemed relaxed and upbeat as we began the long journey home, sipped from a cup of Starbucks in his cabin and reflected on the significance of the Karzai inauguration:
Think about what's happened in that country, what change has brought. Back in the '70s, we were fighting the Soviets, up to the devastation of the '90s, the civil war, the ultimate triumph of the Taliban, 9/11, and, uh, back when it was a safe haven for al Qaeda--all of the training camps, the training they gave maybe 20,000 terrorists in the late 1990s, the state from which they launched the 9/11 attack. Today, we swore in the first democratically elected president in 5,000 years. I think most of us think of it in terms of 9/11 and the subsequent three years. But there's a lot more history to it than that.
Cheney should know. He recalled his involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, when Washington supported the Afghan mujahedeen in their efforts to end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. "I can remember coming to Pakistan with Henry Hyde and Bob Stump about 1987 and meeting with a group of mujahedeen leadership they brought out into Pakistan to meet with us," Cheney said. "We couldn't go into Afghanistan, obviously. We drove up to the Khyber Pass--as far as we went--and one night we had dinner with them."
One of the men who dined with Cheney in 1987, Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, was seated two seats to his left during the inaugural ceremonies last Tuesday. "In those days he was one of the leaders of the muj," Cheney recalled. Mujaddedi, who served briefly in 1992 as the president of Afghanistan and more recently headed the Loya Jirga, delivered the closing prayer.
None of this was inevitable. The Bush administration launched the war in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. By October 31, 2001, R.W. Apple wrote a "news analysis" for the New York Times comparing the "quagmire" in Afghanistan to the years-long one in Vietnam three decades earlier. Even if the war were successful, Apple concluded, Afghanistan's political future was bleak: "In Afghanistan as in South Vietnam, there is a huge question about who would rule if the United States vanquished its foe. Washington never solved that issue satisfactorily after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and solving it in Afghanistan, a country long prone to chaotic competition among many tribes and factions, will probably not be much easier."
He may yet be right. There is, as Cheney acknowledged, "much work to be done." But since that column was written, between 3.5 and 4 million Afghan refugees have returned to their country. Ten million Afghans registered to vote, and of that group about 80 percent showed up at the polls. The majority of those Afghans voted for Hamid Karzai in an election that was praised by outside observers as clean and extraordinarily well run, and Karzai was inaugurated without incident in Kabul. "It's a hell of a story," says Cheney.
At the press conference in Kabul, Cheney followed Karzai's remarks with some of his own. He congratulated Karzai on his victory and pledged American support of Afghan democracy. There was a brief pause at the end of Cheney's statement as both men seemed unclear about the procedures for the question-and-answer session to follow. When Karzai looked to Cheney for direction, the vice president leaned toward the Afghan leader and away from the microphone and in a voice audible only to those standing nearby, reminded Karzai of the obvious. "You're in charge now."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.