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January 07, 2004

LONG, LONG ago, there was a newsroom putdown for editorials about hopelessly obscure topics: Afghanistanism. But the Soviet Union spiked that particular usage with its invasion of 1979 -- after all, what was more important in those days than the steely question of America's response to Soviet imperialism, even in the wildest tracts of Asia? The decades went by, the Soviets left and then watched their own country hit the delete key, but Afghanistan managed to stay significant and interesting enough all the while to avoid that dismissive suffix.

Now the country has entered a new period, with its first real constitution in decades, one that features checks and balances and only came about through significant compromises on all sides. It is, of course, a document and not yet a solution to Afghanistan's immediate and profound problems. The Afghans will require the serious engagement of the United States and the rest of the world to bring this constitution to life. It is as important now as it was two years ago, when the Taliban fell, to provide support and encouragement to the Afghan people and their new government -- to pay attention, and to keep that "ism" at bay.

Two roadside bombs in Kandahar killed more than 15 people yesterday. That was a direct challenge to the spirit of negotiation and compromise that finally prevailed as the constitution was being hammered out. It should also serve as a reminder to Washington that the task undertaken in Afghanistan following 9/11 remains very much unfinished. The Taliban, regrouped, are at war with the forces loyal to President Hamid Karzai, and with U.S. troops. Behind the Taliban lurks al-Qaida. In league with Mr. Karzai are various regional warlords whose long-term loyalty is not exactly a part of the bedrock.

The new constitution has protections for women and ethnic minorities, respect for Islam, and political trade-offs designed to keep contending factions at the table. American and U.N. diplomats helped to push the delegates at the loya jirga toward a deal, but all sides recognize that this constitution is, in the end, an Afghan creation. That is crucial to its chances for success.

Failure, on the other hand, invites catastrophe. An Afghanistan spinning out of control -- or into the hands of the Taliban -- would be a signal defeat in the war on terror. It would wipe out all that the United States has accomplished there since 2001, and if anything leave the country even more hostile toward the West than it was then.

So the burden on all Mr. Karzai's friends -- in the White House and throughout the world -- is to find ways to help extend and deepen the reach of the new constitution. All that's needed are creativity, goodwill and perseverance. Maybe, then, in a generation, a nation will have developed that will be so tranquil and unexciting that newspapers that dare to write about it will again stand justifiably accused of Afghanistanism.

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