Ex-finance minister Ghani bullish as Afghan election race begins

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He collected a meager three percent of the vote last time, but Ashraf Ghani is not short of self-confidence, believing he will win elections in April and be a transformative president of Afghanistan.

Ghani, 64, hopes to succeed Hamid Karzai and oversee efforts to end a 12-year Taliban insurgency as NATO troops depart and the country seeks a degree of economic stability to stave off a return to civil war.

An acerbic academic with a reputation for fierce independence, Ghani is set to play a leading role in the election race as 26 candidates including warlords, Islamists and veteran politicians vie for power.

“I’m good to win. We have the team,” he told AFP in his elegant house protected by several layers of security in Kabul.

“Today the odds are in our favor... (we have) the commitment to bring the younger generation, women, and the poor, into a major alliance, and I think this alliance can secure victory.”

Ghani dismisses the 2009 election as irrelevant, and says he is in a unique position to understand Afghanistan’s myriad problems after heading the transition committee which oversees the country’s return to full sovereignty.

“I’ve been 140 times to the provinces in less than three years. In the process of leading the transition, I’ve dealt with all the key issues,” said Ghani, who was a reform-driving finance minister from 2002-2004.

Ghani, based for much of his career at US universities, including Columbia in New York, stands in contrast to his election rivals, many of whom are either Karzai loyalists or former warlords with murky pasts.

Pragmatic, rather than ideological, Ghani says he wants a national consensus government after the election and he would not hesitate to invite the Taliban to win power through the ballot box.

“I’m the only candidate that has publicly committed to form a national government after victory, because I think we need this to reach a peace,” he said.

“For the Taliban, the question is up to them. Will they be willing to shift from force to the ballot? If they are willing, let them enter into the ballot.”

But Ghani has taken a major risk with his moderate, technocrat reputation by choosing widely-feared Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as his first running mate.

Dostum is accused of killing hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001 along with countless other alleged abuses, and Ghani himself described Dostum as a “known killer” in 2009 when criticizing Karzai for being too close to him.

For Ghani, the choice is simply another example of his realism.

“Politics is not a love marriage, politics is product of historical necessities,” he said.

“The key issue is that he’s popular... Our agreement is on the future, sharing common interests and building Afghanistan, and this team is the strongest indication of reconciliation with the past.”

After joining Ghani’s ticket, Dostum made a vaguely-worded public apology that many of his critics dismissed, but Ghani said his vice-presidential pick “should be praised for his courage”.

“It’s rare in a post-conflict environment that a person makes such a clear break with the past in order to embrace the future,” Ghani said.

President Hamid Karzai has vowed not to endorse any one candidate, though his implicit support could emerge for his older brother Qayum Karzai, foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul -- or even Ghani.

“We want the president to stay neutral,” said Ghani, who sees former 2009 runner-up Abdullah Abdullah as his main rival.

With official campaigning not due to start until February, Ghani is already making good use of the Internet in contrast to other candidates.

He tweets regularly, inviting anyone to visit his house “no appointment needed”, congratulating the national cricket team on its recent success and condemning militant attacks.

“My vision is Afghanistan as a crossroad of a vibrant Asian continental economy and an Afghanistan that is profoundly at peace with its neighbors,” he told AFP.

“The three numerical majorities: youth, women and the poor, should become stakeholders in this country.

“Economically, we do not have the means to pay our security expenses, so we do need international assistance... but I’m confident that there is no risk of a regime failure because of security after 2014.”

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