Time to get to know Ashraf Ghani

While he has not declared himself a winner, it is fairly clear from the election tabulations released last Monday that the new president of Afghanistan – a country in which the United States and the West have considerable human and financial investment – is likely to be Ashraf Ghani.  It is time that more American policymakers and the media get to know and respect this man who will replace the enigmatic Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission last week released preliminary vote counts that showed Ghani, a former finance minister, ahead of Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai’s foreign minister, by more than 1 million votes.  Ghani voluntarily declined to claim victory until an audit of some 7,000 challenged voting boxes is complete, expected on July 22.  Inauguration day is Aug. 2.

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Ghani is America’s friend in a way that Karzai never was, although both are Pashtuns, the largest tribe in Afghanistan.  He has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, taught at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley, and spent 15 years at the World Bank advising China and other nations on development and governance.   He left the bank five months before his lifetime pension would have vested and gave up U.S. citizenship to return to Afghanistan and help rebuild the nation.  In 2005 he co-authored a book, Fixing Failed States, a primer for what lies ahead in his country.

He oversaw the Bonn accords which transferred power back to a new government after the post-9/11 U.S. invasion.  In a country renowned for corruption and inefficiency, his tenure as finance minister was hailed as a model of integrity and accomplishment.  He helped frame and administer the first constitution in world history that integrates women’s rights, Islam and democracy.  Both candidates promised during the campaign to sign bilateral security agreements with the U.S. that Karzai agreed to but then rejected.

As finance minister, Ghani demanded that Afghans decide how to invest in their own future.  He resigned as a protest against rising corruption fueled by foreign aid and outside interference in the Karzai administration.   Today nearly $8 billion of Afghanistan’s $10 billion national budget comes from other countries.  That is unsustainable and Ghani has laid out a plan for private development and regional entrepreneurship designed to get the economy moving. 

Ghani ran an aggressive, western-styled campaign focused on expanding the electorate.     Afghans typically vote in ethnic blocs. In the runoff, Ghani consolidated the votes of the seven other Pashtun candidates from Round One to sweep by  Abdullah, a Tajik. At 42 percent of the population, Pashtuns are the largest ethnic bloc, followed by Tajiks at 27 percent, and Uzbeks and Hazaras at 9 percent each.

Ghani embraced the politics of inclusion. He had a popular Uzbek running mate and reached out to all ethnic groups.  Ghani ran on a moderate platform that rejected warlord politics and appealed to large blocs of voters looking for change, particularly women and young people.  He  persuaded religious clerics to issue an edict saying that women had a duty to vote, and his wife campaigned at his side – a first in Afghan Presidential politics. He promised to appoint the country’s first ever female Supreme Court justice.

Unlike Abdullah, Ghani strongly appealed to young voters through social media.  In  a country of  30 million with limited computer access, he  amassed 19,000 Twitter followers and 313,000 “likes” on Facebook, and he held televised town halls. He proposed reserving 60 percent of his administration jobs  for  workers aged 25 to 45. 

Ghani aggressively courted religious leaders and two days before the election was endorsed by the Ullema --  3,000 influential men who initiated a mosque-to-mosque campaign on his behalf and urged women in particular to vote.  He also won the endorsement of Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the murdered Tajik leader who is probably Afghanistan’s most iconic war hero.

Finally, the Ghani campaign coupled surging support (as showing in pre-election polls) with an aggressive get-out-the-vote offensive that moved new voters to the polls.  That helps explain why the runoff vote was larger than the first round.

Ghani has expressed his respect for Abdullah and invited him to join his government in a coalition of interests, but not a shared power arrangement that would undermine the democratic process.  Once short-listed as a candidate to run the World Bank and the UN, Ghani will be globally respected as the next president of Afghanistan.  It’s important to end the posturing by Abdullah that is worrying the international community and keeping things unstable. 

If these two gentlemen don’t solve this problem locally and prove that Afghan democracy, however embryonic, is an authentic force for positive change there is another gentleman standing in the wings -- perhaps the only Afghan who would benefit from violence that might break out. His name is Karzai.

Fairbanks worked in Afghanistan during the formation of their constitution. He is a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

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