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After decades of Soviet occupation, civil war, and repression at the hands of the Taleban regime, the people of Afghanistan have taken a giant step forward. On January 4th, the five-hundred-two members of the loya jirga, Afghanistan’s national council, approved a new national constitution.

The process wasn’t easy. Men and women from Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups were at times engaged in heated debate. But that is often how democracy works. In a compromise agreement, the Afghan constitution provides for a presidential government, but one with a stronger parliament than originally described in the draft document. Sabghatullah Mujadedi, the chairman of the loya jirga, says that the compromises were all done in the national interest of Afghanistan.

President George W. Bush congratulated the people of Afghanistan on the adoption of their new constitution. “A democratic Afghanistan,” said President Bush, “will serve the interests and just aspirations of all the Afghan people and help ensure that terror finds no refuge in that proud land.”

“Afghanistan still has many challenges, but that country is making progress, and its people are a world away from the nightmare they endured under the Taleban.” The U.S. and more than twenty other countries are helping the Afghan people rebuild their nation. Thousands of kilometers of roads, including the critical Kabul-Kandahar highway, have been repaired. A new Afghan army and police force are being trained to provide security. Millions of Afghans are now sending their sons and daughters to school.

The Afghan constitution clearly lays the foundation for democratic institutions and provides a framework for national elections later this year. The constitution recognizes that most Afghans are Muslims and says that no law shall be contrary to Islam. But it also says that followers of other religions are free to perform religious ceremonies in accordance with the law. And it guarantees equal rights for men and women.

As Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, put it, the document adopted by the loya jirga is “one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world.”