In the weeks after president Obama took office, his Administration sought to manage expectations on Afghanistan. Yes, it was the right war, a war of necessity but winning didn't require turning the country into a "Jeffersonian democracy" (Obama's phrase) or a "Central Asian Valhalla" (as Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it). The implication was that President Bush had become too distracted by secondary, nation-building goals, such as ensuring that Afghan girls went to school. Obama would focus on the main task: defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
But as Afghanistan holds its presidential election, the Obama Administration has arrived at the same conclusion that Bush did: nation-building is essential to defeating extremism in Afghanistan. U.S. security goals in the region cannot be achieved purely by military means; in order for American and NATO troops to someday be able to head home, Afghanistan needs good governance and modern institutions.
The struggle to achieve such stability will persist long after the election itself. Afghanistan's current President, Hamid Karzai, was once a darling of Washington but has proved feckless. His misrule has contributed greatly to the Taliban revival that the U.S. and its allies are now trying to quell. There's not much reason to hope that a re-elected Karzai will get significantly better. The White House's best bet will be to strengthen the instruments of governance so that they carry clout even in timorous hands. The good news is that Afghanistan's leaders, who desperately need American arms and aid, can't afford to be obstinate.
American politicians have a tendency to attach too much hope to elections as a salvation for long-oppressed peoples. But we've learned in Iraq that a vote can't deliver citizens from harm if it doesn't also deliver good government. Getting the winners of Afghanistan's election to rule well will be the Obama Administration's main challenge.