Afghanistan, my native homeland, finally has a president. The blood, sweat and tears suffered by the people of Afghanistan – and the considerable military and economic support invested there by the United States and other Western countries since 9/11 – may yet lead to a promising new chapter, once Dr. Ashraf Ghani is inaugurated and begins to lead the country next week.
If anyone can keep Afghanistan on a road to coherent self government and democracy, it is Ghani. From his earliest years he has had total clarity of purpose, great vision, and an incandescent passion to serve Afghanistan. He was my roommate at the American University of Beirut more than four decades ago. Our lives took different paths – mine eventually to California, his back to Kabul University, then to Columbia University for his doctoral and to teaching position at Johns Hopkins University and at University of California at Berkeley.
But whereas I settled into academic life, Ashraf was called to work on development in emerging economies, governance, and improving the quality of life in troubled countries. At the World Bank he developed deeper insight on what can turn around failing nations, experience he now can put to work for his country.
After 9/11 he left that comfortable position at the bank to go home to Afghanistan. He was the key adviser to the United Nations in brokering the Bonn Agreement that set up Afghanistan’s government. In 2002 he set up the reconstruction agency in Afghanistan that launched Afghanistan’s widely praised national programs in health, telecoms, and transportation and the National Solidarity Program that saw block grants go to more than 30,000 communities and more than 100,000 women serving on community councils. Then, as Finance Minister, he launched a series of reforms that saw Afghanistan move up over 50 places on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions index, and earned him the title of Asia’s Best Finance Minister in 2003. As head of Afghanistan’s Transition Commission, he successfully transitioned all 34 provinces from NATO to Afghan security leadership.
Ghani brings to the presidency a track record of reform, and a well-thought-through strategy aimed at building on the successes of the Karzai years, while weeding out the corruption and family patronage If the awkward national unity government which includes Ghani’s opponents is able to work, American taxpayers and military veterans who helped move Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and allowed the people to retake control of their country now have a decent chance at getting a reasonable return on that investment.
Afghanistan is a very different country than when Western forces arrived in 2002. About half of the population now is urban and 68 percent is 25 years of age or under; youth is our biggest asset. At the same time, the economy has to grow at 9 percent a year just to keep up with demographic growth. Ghani understands that dealing with that rapid population growth and providing jobs, education and upward mobility to these young men and women is the greatest challenge facing the next president.
He also wants to move the country from its deep dependency on incoherent aid payments provided by the West ( U.S. economic aid peaked at approximately $4.1 billion in 2010) to a rational strategy of public and private economic development built around water resources, hydrocarbons and minerals and the country’s location, ideal for global logistics. Those pillars for development can only strengthen existing agriculture, transport and services sectors, as long as the state provides security and stability. In addition, his plans will significantly increase the country’s exports which can create a broad-based prosperity and reduce poverty.
Ghani will sign the bilateral security agreement that Karzai negotiated with the U.S. and then refused to sign, but Ghani’s longtime residence and professional underpinnings in the United States should limit the potential for the misunderstandings and tensions that have plagued recent relations between the two countries. He is clear that Afghanistan’s future requires relations with each of its immediate neighbors and with the Arab-Islam countries that share its Islamic identity. But it is fair to say that he is unlikely to forge alliances with Russia or Iran that would complicate relationships with the NATO countries and the United States.
The transformation of global economic power that is underway and the emerging role of Asia offers Afghanistan natural markets and prospects for entrepreneurial outreach and networks that can reinforce prosperity and economic stability. Ghani has said that he sees this development as a plus for maximizing the country’s water and mineral resources, strategic location and linguistic commonalities.
Finally, because continuing international assistance will be critical to the country’s stability and advancement, Ghani’s understanding of the development organizations – the World Bank where he worked, the Asian Development Bank, the UN system , bi-lateral entities – and of the potential for partnerships with global corporations and civil society groups, is crucial.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty and exaggerated claims of election fraud that stalled the final count of the June 14 ballots for months, the people of Afghanistan are ready to they build a national consensus and march forward together. The pragmatism and strength that made it possible for the Afghan people to endure and survive conflict, insecurity and poverty has readied the country for the strong leadership Ashraf Ghani offers and a brighter future ahead.
Qayoumi is the president of San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif. He was an adviser to the minister of finance and served on the board of directors for the Central Bank of Afghanistan. The views expressed herein are his own and do not represent those of San Jose State University or the California State University.