FOUR YEARS AGO this weekend, the Taliban dictatorship of Afghanistan rejected a U.S. demand that it break its bond with Osama bin Laden, despite the attacks on New York and Washington one week earlier and the threat of American military action. This weekend, as many as 12 million Afghans will vote in nationwide elections for parliament and provincial councils in a historic step toward democracy. Among the 6,000 candidates are representatives of almost every faction that has contended for power in Afghanistan over the past several decades. There are tribal leaders and Western-educated liberals; communists and the mujaheddin who once fought them and, later, each other; and several former officials of the Taliban itself. Five hundred eighty-two of the candidates are women, who four years ago were banned from holding jobs, going to school or appearing on the street without covering themselves from head to foot. They will fill at least 68 of the 249 seats in the parliament.

It's easy for Westerners, and even Afghans, to lose sight of how much progress this represents. Sunday's vote is not only a breathtaking leap for a nation whose previous government was an Islamic theocracy that mixed medieval social policies with sponsorship of 21st-century terrorism. It also places Afghanistan ahead of almost all of its Central Asian neighbors, who have never held a vote as free. Much of the reporting of Western observers and human rights groups nevertheless has focused on the perceived failings of the political process. Though insurgent activity has fallen off in recent weeks in the face of aggressive operations by some 20,000 U.S. troops and 10,000 NATO peacekeepers, several southern provinces remain insecure and some voters there may be intimidated. Human rights groups protest that warlords guilty of crimes in Afghanistan's civil war are poised to collect votes. At the insistence of President Hamid Karzai, the election system is centered on individuals rather than parties; critics say this may produce a weak or conservative legislature.

While many of these critiques are legitimate, it's worth noting the tenaciousness with which many liberal Westerners have opposed every step by Afghanistan toward freedom. Four years ago, for example, former European Union commissioner Emma Bonino was one of those who condemned the U.S. intervention against the Taliban, which she said would "all but doom" millions of Afghans "to death." Now, incredibly, she leads the E.U.'s observer mission at the elections; not so surprisingly, she's again pessimistic. "I simply don't think this election is going to produce . . . a healthy political life," she told the Financial Times.

Afghanistan surely has a long way to go. Part of the Taliban is still fighting, and more U.S. soldiers (51) have died in combat this year than in any since 2001. Though Kabul is booming, Afghanistan is still one of the world's five poorest countries, and up to 60 percent of its economy comes from the production of poppies for opium. Once the elections are over, Mr. Karzai will still have the problem of edging the former warlords and communists aside and encouraging the emergence of new leaders committed to democracy and human rights. No, political life isn't entirely "healthy." But as the world will shortly see, it is immeasurably better off than it was four years ago -- and than it would have been had the United States hesitated to act.