Mr. Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, has won that country’s first presidential ballot. The election is a momentous accomplishment for Afghanistan, a country that has been torn by war for decades. Mr. Karzai’s win is a victory for him personally, but it is also an incalculable victory for the Afghan people. They took considerable risk to vote, determined to have their say in the future course of their country. The results should quiet skeptics who dismiss such ballots as empty rituals or who claim that democracy’s importance is exaggerated and should be subordinated to more practical concerns.

U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan three years ago when the Afghan government, then headed by the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group, refused to hand over members of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, who were thought to be in the country and were implicated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Taliban was quickly routed, and the U.S. handpicked Mr. Karzai to head the interim government after he worked to convince several ethnic Pashtun tribes to end their support for the Taliban. Since he was chosen president in June 2002 by the loya jirga, a grand council of tribal leaders, he has traveled the globe trying to secure international support.

Although Mr. Karzai enjoyed the support of regional tribal leaders — the result of considerable political horse-trading — the Afghan people had not given him their approval. In fact, no Afghan leader had ever been popularly elected — until now. Seventeen candidates contested the presidency in the country’s first presidential election. Some 8 million Afghans voted, despite threats by the Taliban to disrupt the balloting and isolated incidents of violence.

The results gave Mr. Karzai a little more than 55 percent of the vote — 39 percentage points ahead of his closest challenger and more than the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. There were charges of fraud, but even his opponents have decided to endorse the results, conceding that Mr. Karzai has been legitimately elected.

Now the real work begins. Having won the popular vote, the new president must now assuage the real power holders in Afghanistan: the warlords — or regional leaders, as Mr. Karzai prefers to call them. He has to provide them sufficient spoils to win their endorsement. The composition of his Cabinet will be one important indicator. The president also needs political support to win control of the national assembly in polls to be held next year. Failing that, his government could be stymied by a recalcitrant Parliament.

Afghanistan’s divisions are deep and long-standing. The country is a patchwork of tribes and ethnic groups with no love for each other. Their hostilities have driven much of the violence that has dominated Afghanistan’s history. Crucial to the new president’s success is support from the ethnic Pashtun, from which the Taliban emerged. Mr. Karzai has tried to win over moderate Taliban, and has enjoyed some success.

Ultimately, Mr. Karzai’s future — and that of the country — will depend on the central government taking control of the entire country. Afghanistan’s desperate circumstances has forced the government to rely heavily on the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), a 7,000-strong NATO-led force that provides security in Kabul and other key population centers.

In the aftermath of the election, Western donors now look ready to extend the ISAF’s mandate to provinces formerly left to the warlords. The mere demonstration of a longer commitment to Afghanistan is an important step. Eventually, Afghanistan must raise its own army, however, and recruitment and training must commence immediately.

Just as important is economic stabilization, and here a powerful case can be made for increased assistance out of contributors’ sheer self-interest. The chaos in Afghanistan has allowed the country to retake its place as the world’s No. 1 supplier of narcotics. Drug officials estimate that Afghanistan supplies 86 percent of the world’s heroin products, which account for about one-third of its national income. Aid is essential to help wean the Afghan people from their dependency on opium production for their livelihood. Japan, along with other countries, has provided considerable aid to Afghanistan, but that effort is only beginning.

Few countries have deserved our support more. Despite considerable risks, the people of Afghanistan are determined to take hold of their future. They have shown the importance of democracy, and the willingness to fight for the right to control their own destiny. For that courage alone, they, and their new president, deserve our continuing support.

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