On Saturday, the Afghan people took another step toward lasting peace and prosperity while dealing a blow to terrorism. Afghan women and men turned out in massive numbers to participate in the first direct presidential election in the country's history. Despite threats from al Qaeda and the Taliban, and notwithstanding claims of electoral fraud that must be fully investigated, no one can challenge the Afghan people's courage and determination to exercise their sovereign rights. Saturday's election was a joyous moment, but it was a moment, nonetheless, on a 10-year journey toward rebuilding our country.
For more than two decades, Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban dictatorship had imposed an unrepresentative order on an unwilling people. This bloody legacy enabled al Qaeda to capture our country and use it for a campaign of global terrorism. But the election underscores a major break with the vicious cycle of the past. Just three years and two days after an international military coalition came to free our country, we Afghans have once again chosen the path of peace and democracy.
Afghanistan is making an impressive though difficult transition from conflict and dictatorship to popular empowerment. In December 2001, a group of Afghans met for U.N.-sponsored talks in Bonn and overcame factional differences to agree on a road map for peace and stability. Weeks later, for the first time in our history, power was transferred peacefully to an interim government. At the June 2002 loya jirga (Grand Assembly), the Afghan government took its next step toward increased legitimacy: representative delegates elected Hamid Karzai president through a secret ballot and approved choices for the key posts in his cabinet. After national consultations, a second loya jirga debated and ratified a new constitution that enshrined democratic institutions and citizens' rights, especially those of women.
While the election represents another milestone on our journey, the future will soon bring new hurdles. As the expectations of Afghans grow, Afghan leaders and our international partners must continue to deliver public security, economic growth and good governance. While the presence of international peacekeepers and the military coalition have been essential for the past three years, sustainable peace will now require urgent strengthening and expansion of Afghan national security institutions. The national army and police forces must create a safe environment for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of militias. And rule of law will require establishing an impartial and effective judiciary, as well as addressing the menace of a criminalized economy dominated by drug networks.
In April 2004 in Berlin, the international community acknowledged Afghanistan's long route to lasting peace by endorsing our $27.5 billion public investment plan for the next seven years. When they generously pledged $8.2 billion over three years as the down payment on that plan, they acknowledged that poverty was as great a threat to securing Afghanistan's future as militias, narcotics and terrorism. More than 70 percent of our people live on less than $2 a day, making us vulnerable to the cynical politics of patronage, xenophobia and criminality.
To free ourselves from endemic poverty and aid dependency in the next seven years, we will need predictable flows of international funds, and we will need to spend wisely. If we use these funds to alleviate immediate suffering, strengthen our human capital and rebuild our infrastructure, the Afghan people can prosper. With schools, basic health care, functioning roads, electric power, adequate water and other basic needs met, our entrepreneurs will thrive and our small and medium-size businesses will create jobs. Meanwhile, large-scale private investment programs will open markets for our goods and services. Our farmers and traders want to participate in the regional and global economy. We must help them to do so.
In December 2001, we saw the beginning of a remarkable partnership between the international community and the Afghan people. Since then, women and men from around the world have served our nation as soldiers, peacekeepers, diplomats, aid workers and election observers. Grateful for this unusual support, Afghans came to the polls en masse to affirm their commitment to a better future. Yet our journey together toward a democratic, secure and prosperous Afghanistan will not be realized overnight. Saturday's election is a historic achievement, but it is only one step forward. We must now recommit to our shared future, for we have all come to understand that whatever road we take in Afghanistan, we will take it together.
The writer is Afghanistan's finance minister.