Afghanistan’s three-year drive for stability reached a milestone when Mr. Hamid Karzai was sworn in Tuesday as its first popularly elected president. But the road is strewn with obstacles. Ethnic and tribal divisions are clouding prospects for national unity. As yet, there is no end in sight to terrorist attacks, apparently by remnants of the Taliban.

Local warlords, meanwhile, continue to defy central authority, and the opium trade is preventing the growth of a healthy economy. The good news is that a full-fledged administration is emerging in Kabul with the blessing of the international community.

The new administration has two overriding aims: achieving national reconciliation and establishing a functioning democracy. These efforts, of course, require continued international support, but it should be provided in ways that respect the sovereignty of the Afghan people. Although President Karzai enjoys the solid backing of the United States, he would be wise to adopt a reconstruction process that does not rely solely on U.S. military power.

An immediate task for the president is to form a new Cabinet of unity. That won’t be easy. First of all, he will need to reach accommodation with leaders of the Northern Alliance, which took part in the U.S.-led military campaign to oust the Taliban regime in 2001. Among his critics is a former education minister who lost in the Oct. 9 presidential election.

The election result, a landslide for Mr. Karzai, reflected the ethnic makeup of Afghanistan, which consists largely of majority Pashtuns and minority Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun, won big particularly in the Pashtun regions. To achieve some semblance of national unity, therefore, he must forge a factional balance. If he gives a cold shoulder to the Northern Alliance and packs his new team with Pashtuns loyal to him, the country could again become embroiled in ethnic conflict and power struggles.

President Karzai has said his presidency represents the will of the Afghan people, not the will of the majority group alone. He should bear this in mind as he tries to assemble an ethnically balanced government. At the same time, he should be careful not to give any special treatment to influential warlords. A unity Cabinet should be one that comprises capable men and women from various ethnic groups.

The biggest obstacle to national reconciliation is the continued presence of warlords who effectively rule the countryside. Disarming their powerful militias, reportedly numbering as many as 100,000, remains an urgent priority. So far only about 20,000 are said to have surrendered their arms. Most of these local militia commanders aligned themselves with the U.S. military during the anti-Taliban campaign. The new administration, working together with the international community, should step up efforts to dismantle the militias and help their members return to normal life.

It is also critical to restore security ahead of parliamentary elections next spring. According to recent reports, U.S. forces are meeting stubborn resistance from insurgents believed to be holdovers from the Taliban era. For the elections to succeed, it is imperative to contain these extremists. In recent months, the Karzai administration is said to have held behind-the-scenes talks with moderate Taliban leaders to try to divide and isolate the hardliners.

Stamping out the opium trade is also an urgent necessity. Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium producer, reportedly continues to cultivate ever more poppies in violation of an international ban. The opium industry represents a grave threat to national reconstruction. With this year’s opium exports accounting for an estimated 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, donor nations should strive to improve on projects that help reduce chronic poverty.

Afghanistan’s successful presidential election in October was thought to be an integral part of the U.S. strategy of promoting democracy and freedom in the Middle East and was intended to serve as a model for Iraq’s legislative elections in January. Afghanistan is not Iraq, but both offer a common lesson: Imposing U.S. political values, or the American brand of democracy and freedom, on a foreign nation can be counterproductive. That could only exacerbate anti-American feelings in the region.

It is too early to tell how the democratic process in Afghanistan will develop, for the effort has only just started. Nation-building is, by definition, a long process that demands patience. Certainly there will be twists and turns down the road. But the process itself now seems irreversible.

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