Q&A: Afghan candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

Western-educated aspirant discusses peace with the armed opposition if elected president.

A campaign poster of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (L) in 2009 in Kandahar [Getty Images]

Kabul, Afghanistan – On paper Columbia-educated cultural anthropologist Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is an ideal candidate to be Afghanistan’s president.

Ghani has worked at the World Bank and United Nations, and has written a book on failed states. 

In Afghanistan, however, his 2009 bid for the highest political office was dogged by criticism that his 24 years abroad meant Ghani had become a virtual stranger to the Afghan people.

Ghani, who hails from an influential Pashtun family, came in fourth in the 2009 polls, securing less than three per cent of the vote. In the years since, he has tried to connect with ordinary Afghans while still utilising his decades of international experience.

Ghani filed his nomination papers on Sunday to run in the presidential election in April. Perhaps the biggest challenge for him this time around is his brother, Hashmat, who announced his own candidacy on Saturday.

Al Jazeera spoke to Ashraf Ghani about what sets him apart from other candidates, why he thinks Hamid Karzai has been a successful leader, and engaging Afghanistan’s youth and women politically.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Afghan presidential candidate

Al Jazeera: What sort of plans and programmes do you have in mind if elected?

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai: In terms of stability, we need to conduct the election in a manner that the day after, the loser congratulates the winner and the winner invites the loser to form a national government. We need to include and empower the youth, the poor and women – the three numerical majorities that today are political and economic minorities in this country.

AJ: How would you engage the youth?

AGA: I’m proposing a process where the youth will identify their five top issues and I will offer a programme of action and enter into a compact with them regarding its implementation. At least 60 percent of the positions in the next administration, should I head it, will be composed of people aged 25 to 45.

AJ: How do you ensure that this doesn’t re-empower wealthy, connected youth?

AGA: The definition of “youth” does not mean the educated youth. Youth also means 12 million Afghans who are not literate. Employment is going to be a central issue for the youth. I would and should be judged by the extent to which I can provide meaningful, sustainable and dignified employment.

AJ: Your brother, Hashmat Ghani, has also registered for candidacy. How would you respond to people who may question the parallel campaigns of two brothers?

AGA: We are biologically related, we are not politically identified. Everybody is free to run.

AJ: You’re not worried it will lead to questions?

AGA: Why should it? My brother and I do not share a political vision.

AJ: Is there a political role for Hamid Karzai in the next administration? He has proven to be one of the most adept politicians of this country in the last 150 years.

AGA: He has an immense talent for recognising political realities. I would be calling on him to benefit from those skills. He created a culture of inclusion …This is a legacy that we need to consolidate and institutionalise.

AJ: What is the role of the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami?

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai [EPA]

AGA: The Taliban are a fact of this country. We need to reach enduring peace. Reaching enduring peace means acknowledgment of those who are bearing arms and understanding the external support mechanisms and their internal grievances so we can address them.

AJ: Has this current political mechanism dealing with the Taliban been successful?

AGA: Peace is a difficult process. Pushing peace without the readiness of all sides is not easy. This government, this president, has made immense efforts to put the agenda of peace centrally, and he sacrificed for it.

AJ: The Taliban have said they refuse to speak to Karzai. Would they be more likely to speak to an administration headed by you?

AGA: I certainly hope so, because my vision is inclusive. That means being pragmatic, realistic and yet visionary at the same time, so we can begin from the current realities but move to consolidate an order that we can all be part of.

AJ: You are very well known for being anti-corruption. This current government is rife with corruption. How will you address that?

AGA: There are 100 countries that are extremely corrupt. There are 20-25 countries that came out of corruption and succeeded. The United States still has major corruption, particularly at the municipal level. England invented corruption. Dealing with corruption is a multi-pronged agenda.

First, deal with the underlying causes, not with symptoms. Certain parts can be cleaned up fairly rapidly, like the health sector. Of $800m of medicine that is imported in this country, about $600m is faulty. This requires a systematic approach and can be fixed within six months. Then there are those sectors where corruption is extremely entrenched. Cleaning up this type of corruption is a 10-15-year process. But the momentum moving forward has to be very real.

AJ: Some critics have said that you are seen as too intellectual or too Western. How would you address that criticism?

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in January 2012 [EPA]

AGA: Could you point to a single politician of this country, other than me, who’s been to the 34 provinces 140 times? … I have immersed myself in this country for the last 13 years. I’ve cut all my international ties. I speak the language of the ordinary person. I’ve not created miles of security layers between myself and the people.

AJ: Why do you think that image is still there?

AGA: Because of propaganda. How many other politicians have spent how much time abroad? How many of them have families abroad? My family’s here … We have made our stakes here. I live, as you see, in an open area. Do you see fences around the house blocking off the streets? So who’s afraid of the people? [Me] or those politicians who are throwing stones at me?

AJ: How would you sum up your campaign platform?

AGA: Stability, inclusion, reforms, peace and state-to-state relationships with our neighbours and the international community.

AJ: How do you build relations with the neighbours?

AGA: It’s a new Central Asia. We have immense opportunities with Tajikistan to try border cooperation. Economically, we need to build our relationships with Uzbekistan. We have no conflicts, no disputes with Central Asia. With Iran, we are going to move to a steady state-to-state relationship.

With Pakistan … there’s a basis now for acknowledgement of mutual interests vis-a-vis mutual threats.The goal is clear – in 10 years we should get a special relationship with Pakistan.

Source: Al Jazeera