In April 1996, when Mullah Omar took the title of Afghanistan’s Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) in perpetuity, more than 99 percent of Afghans had not even seen his face. Omar, who to this day remains in hiding while continuing to engage in a bloody war in a bid to return to power, ruled only by decrees that were announced by Taliban’s music-less, female-less and truthless Radio Shariat. In one of those decrees, Omar instructed his forces to punish any of his adult male subjects who dared to trim his beard or venture outside without a turban.
Eighteen years later, every one of the eight men who have competed gracefully to be the next Afghan president is widely known to the public. From ridiculing their personal lives to contesting their political ideas, Afghans have been liberally engaged with their future president. Unlike Omar, the next Afghan president will be bound by laws and accountable to a strong bicameral parliament—in short, subject to the will of the Afghan people.
As much as this astonishing transformation reflects the aspirations of Afghans themselves, it is also the scenario envisioned by the U.S. more than a decade ago.
The international community of the 21st century can hardly bask in feelings of security when a draconian regime is systematically torturing its citizens with the decrees of an unseen leader. As the 9/11 tragedy proved, a country ruled by the likes of Mullah Omar is hardly in the American interest. International security requires democratic states that prioritize rationality over superstitious politics. That is why the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and overhauled its political system.
Hence the U.S. invasion and its efforts to overhaul Afghanistan’s political system, with a mission of creating a country where people could freely choose their leaders and where women would not face restrictions because of their gender.
In taking Afghanistan from a terrified society to a promising and inclusive political system, the Afghans and the world have paid dearly in blood and treasure. Tens of thousands of people—most of them Afghans—have lost their lives, and tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money have been spent, much of it inefficiently, to rid Afghanistan of Mullah Omar’s abhorrent politics. But now that one democratically elected Afghan president is being succeeded by another—in an election that is being hailed as a success—those sacrifices have real meaning.
At this stage, Afghanistan’s institutions and political entities are at a stage where they can make decisions independently. If there is any takeaway from the recurrent rifts between President Hamid Karzai and Washington over the past few years, it is this: Afghans now want to be fully in control of their own affairs.
Even as a sovereign democracy, however, Afghanistan still needs strong U.S. and international partnership and support. That does not mean that the next Afghan president should inherit a shared sovereignty or face external pressure to accept unsavory domestic arrangements—the situation Karzai often faced. Afghans can and should deal with their internal problems independently.
What Afghanistan needs is Washington’s genuine support in thwarting regional interventions and receiving sustainable development aid. Afghanistan would benefit from the same kind of alliance and partnership with the U.S. that have helped South Korea, Japan and Israel deal with external security threats.
The U.S. long ago accomplished its mission in those countries, yet the alliances are unwavering. That is precisely what Afghanistan needs.
Akmal Dawi is an Afghan journalist. He tweets from @Kabul3