DEMOCRACY IS a wonderful thing, at least it’s supposed to be. But sometimes democratic elections don’t deliver the type of leader a country needs. That looks likely to happen in Afghanistan, a barely formed nation economically more desperate than most, next week.
If the West and its misspent billions in aid withdrew from Afghanistan, it would fail overnight. It needs enlightened leadership in the economy, which eight years after Washington’s post-9/11 invasion isn’t much different than it was when the Taliban cavemen ruined the place.
National incomes have marginally improved but that’s mostly due to the drug economy that has prospered under the corrupt Hamid Karzai Government, as evidenced by the over-marbled ”poppy palaces” of Afghanistan’s druglords, who help keep Karzai in power.
Karzai’s Afghanistan has become the world’s most efficient narco-state, supplying 80 per cent of the world’s opium poppies, which really means heroin. Little wonder that the last time I was there, my fellow guests at Kabul’s Serena Hotel were Colombian drug-busters and their paymasters from the US Drug Enforcement Administration Agency, bitching and frustrated that Karzai’s ministers were stymieing their efforts.
The Government is a cancer on Afghanistan, the President a failure. Yet, perversely, he’s the frontrunner to be re-elected next week.
And yet among the 36 candidates vying for votes is one of the world’s more capable technocrats specialising in correcting failed states, who just happens to be an Afghan.
Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan in the 1970s to study, and then the 1979 Soviet invasion kept him away.
Now 60, the Columbia-trained economist has spent near his entire career outside his birthplace, advising countries crippled by war, corruption, misgovernance and economic collapse, each of which afflicts Afghanistan.
Ghani was part of the World Bank team that helped right Indonesia and others stricken by the mid-1990s Asian financial crisis. He advised Russia when it melted down in the ’90s; Mexico too. He’s written myriad books and papers based on his practical experience at the coalface.
Via his Washington-based think tank, the Institute for State Effectiveness, Ghani lectures and consults globally on the stuff that makes countries work, not just the economic nuts and bolts, but culture too. For years, he was the World Bank’s chief anthropologist, out of Washington, where he assiduously networked whoever occupied the White House, notably the Clinton Democrats.
And now the Democrats are back – sort of – inheriting America’s Afghan mess from George Bush. (Bill Clinton’s chief political adviser in 1992, James Carville, is on Ghani’s team.)
And he’s well disposed to Australians too. One of his most trusted advisers when he was Afghanistan’s finance minister in 2002 – after returning to Kabul in 2001 – was respected Australian economist Michael Carnahan, who is now writing a UN-commissioned paper examining the economic impact of peacekeeping missions.
Ghani knows the Taliban well – one of his papers was a seminal 1985 study of the Pakistani madrassas where it was nurtured.
He had been in his World Bank office in Washington on September 11 when hijacked planes ripped into the nearby Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Centre. Though horrified, Ghani recognised the attacks provided a chance for Afghanistan to make a new beginning.
”I sat in my office for three hours and thought through the strategy for transition in Afghanistan. I knew that, horrible though that day was, that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were finished and that there was an opportunity for this country that we had to grasp.”
Ghani had been waiting 25 years to help his homeland. His two years running the finance ministry was Afghanistan’s most buoyant time since the Soviets took over.
He launched a stable new currency and shepherded billions of dollars in aid into the country, often because he knew the donors as personal friends from his time at the World Bank.
He also started to collect taxes from regions controlled by warlords. On one occasion, he went to the western town of Herat, long a fiefdom of notorious warlord Ismail Khan, who’d gotten rich exacting tolls, often at gunpoint, from the Iran-Afghan road trade. Three days later two Land Cruisers pulled into Ghani’s ministry in Kabul and unloaded dozens of bags of money – about $20 million in US and Afghan currency. This was unheard of in fractured Afghanistan, where President Karzai is derided as the ”mayor of Kabul”.
Ghani’s finance ministry was the best of a bad bunch of Afghan ministries. He took a tough line on corruption, a big reason why Karzai moved him aside in 2004, as warlords, cronies and family members began polluting the presidency.
Now Ghani is running for president, against the very man he pointed fingers at, and who didn’t want him in his cabinet. Ghani says Karzai has had his chances, but blew them all. The way to fix extremism, Ghani says, is build a sound economy, provide jobs, security and empowerment, something gainful to do.
An aristocrat of Afghanistan’s nomadic Ahmadzai clan, Ghani has the smarts, the pedigree and the all-important connections and unofficial backing in Washington. But he doesn’t have Karzai’s charisma or warlord friends who can guarantee regions en bloc. He’s running a distant fourth in opinion polls, behind Karzai, his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, and a former planning minister, Ramazan Barshadost.
Though lagging with about 5 per cent support, Ghani may yet find his way into power. Karzai is the frontrunner but, if he doesn’t triumph in the first round on August 20, momentum may swing against him in the second. Ghani probably won’t make it past round one with those numbers but it could be enough to swing the pendulum in a tight race.
Prompted by the Americans, this week Karzai tried to make peace with Ghani, offering him the slot of ”chief executive” to the presidency, effectively prime minister. Ghani spurned the offer, publicly at least, but it is known that he is talking to his political foe. And Abdullah too is keeping Ghani close at hand. Both he and Karzai know they need a Western-friendly,
well-connected technocrat like Ghani, even if he’s more popular in Washington than Kabul.
And that should please the many donors, like Australia, whose troops are in harm’s way because the Karzai regime has lost the will, if it ever had much, to fix this blighted land.