- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Ashraf Ghani says he is running for Afghan president with plenty of ideas, if not campaign contributions.

Mr. Ghani, who is the leading challenger to President Hamid Karzai, said Afghanistan needs “vision and management” as well as security. And the former finance minister and World Bank official said he can provide it.

Afghan politicians “keep asking for more money without being able to spend it properly,” he told The Washington Times in a recent interview in his Kabul home.

U.S. aid to the Afghan government — more than $60 billion since 2001 — can be made more effective by focusing on infrastructure and job creation, in turn reducing Afghanistan’s dependency on foreign money over time, he said.

He cited figures showing that the government loses 70 percent of its revenue each year through waste, mismanagement and corruption.

The presidential campaign coincides with a buildup of U.S. troops ordered by President Obama in an attempt to change the course of the war.

About 7,000 troops began deploying this week to southern Afghanistan, mainly to Helmand province, which is largely controlled by the Taliban and is the world’s largest opium-growing region.

Mr. Ghani said he wants to accompany a military turnaround with an economic revival that is driven by agricultural exports, mining and hydropower.

The focus on hydropower could make Afghanistan a regional provider of electricity instead of a net importer. This would require improved connectivity to resource-hungry neighbors such as China.

In November, a Chinese company won a contract to mine copper by investing nearly $3 billion in infrastructure, including an electricity plan and railroad spur to Tajikistan that would create thousands of jobs.

Asked about the insurgent threat to backcountry projects, Mr. Ghani said “spatial clusters” of growth, initially focused in eight stable northern provinces, would create a “multiplier effect.”

With time, he said, these clusters will overlap and allow investors to push deeper into at-risk areas in the South and East.

As an example of what is possible, Mr. Ghani cited two telecommunications companies that were at first hesitant to pay for $5 million licenses.

They are now worth more than $600 million with more than 1 million subscribers each, Mr. Ghani said. Three other firms have joined the market, which has attracted $1 billion in private investments.

Today, Afghanistan ranks among the world’s most corrupt and least developed countries, beset by economic woes and rampant drug trafficking that give traction to the Taliban-led insurgency.

Despite Mr. Ghani’s best efforts, Mr. Karzai is expected to win the Aug. 18 vote, partly because of a flurry of agreements with potential opponents in the past month.

Some Western commentators are convinced that Mr. Karzai has already won.

Mr. Ghani rejected the forecast as one of “analysts who are bound in embassies.”

“No one can deny what the problems are anymore,” he said. “I’m challenging [Mr. Karzai] with nothing in the way of material resources, but with ideas and volunteers.”

He has not ruled out a possible partnership with the only other high-profile challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who has also fallen out with the president.

As finance minister from 2002 to 2004, Mr. Ghani won praise for reforms and large-scale development projects. He created a new currency under a centralized revenue system and overhauled the budget and customs systems, making the government more accountable to the Afghan people and international donors. At one stretch, he even worked for free.

After his departure, he served as chancellor of Kabul University.

In 2006, he was a candidate to become secretary-general of the United Nations. A steady presence at international conferences, he churns out papers and op-ed contributions on nation-building and he co-authored a recent book, “Fixing Failed States.”

On security strategy, Mr. Ghani praised the Obama administration for what he called a “unified approach” to counterinsurgency that recognizes the need to focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan and reaches out to civilians.

However, he stressed that air strikes and other heavy-handed tactics that kill civilians are self-defeating.

“Counterinsurgency can accommodate counterterror, but not the other way around,” he said, noting that “months of careful counterinsurgency can be undone in day by one single” mistake.

If elected, Mr. Ghani said he would talk to Taliban representatives.

Most rank-and-file militants can be won over with a job, he said, comparing them to his “16-year-old students.” Hard-core elements that continue to target the state, meanwhile, “must be confronted from a position of strength.”

While no one questions his intellectual gifts, critics wonder how much clout Mr. Ghani would command in dealing with the Taliban and influential warlords. There are also doubts over the extent of his rural support base. Until recently, he was a U.S. citizen who invariably donned a suit and tie.

Seated in his Kabul living room in traditional attire, he appeared the native son, flanked by a glass case of bolt-action rifles. A dog roamed among young saplings outside.

Mr. Ghani said Afghans are familiar with his initiatives such as a National Solidarity Program, which dispensed more than $500 million in World Bank aid to 23,000 villages.

While illiteracy may be high, so is political consciousness in a country that has experienced little respite from war in the past three decades.

“The average Afghan listens to four radio stations a day. We are neither ignorant nor stupid,” he said.

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