Aconversation with Ashraf Ghani is not just a tour of Afghanistan's horizons; it takes in the whole world. Respected internationally for his intellect (he's among the top 100 "global thinkers," says Foreign Policy magazine), the former World Bank technocrat casually spices his talk of his country's future with learned allusions to politics in other nations, observing of Afghanistan's difficult relations with Pakistan: "We are reaching the point they are going to be either like Franco-German relations in the first half of the 20th century, or in the second half." Ghani says the next Afghan president must tackle the perception of endemic corruption — "because perception is nine-tenths of reality" — and despite his fervent commitment to the bilateral security agreement he himself negotiated, he is frank in laying some of the blame on the United States. Asked in an interview last year about Hamid Karzai's decision to accept CIA money and what it said about the way the Afghan government conducts itself, Ghani retorted: "What does it say about the way the American government conducts itself?"
A peek into Ghani's thinking is also a glimpse of Afghanistan's future — and it may look brighter than many skeptics have been saying. Though the final vote tally will not be known for weeks, Ghani is emerging as one of the two highest-polling candidates in Afghanistan's election this week along with his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who has no less impressive a leadership résumé. A former close friend of legendary Afghan freedom fighter and U.S. ally Ahmad Shah Masoud — whose face still adorns buildings all over Kabul — Abdullah is a medical doctor of mixed Pashtun and Tajik heritage who has a reputation for toughness and integrity.
Both men have been deeply involved from the start in rebuilding their country. Abdullah served as the first post-Taliban foreign minister, and Ghani was finance minister. "They were the two people principally responsible for engaging the international community from 2002," James Dobbins, President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told National Journal, though he added that the U.S. government doesn't endorse any candidate. "They carried the full burden of introducing Afghanistan to the world and the world to Afghanistan."
The apparent popularity of Ghani and Abdullah, along with that of another respected former foreign minister, Zalmai Rassoul, combined with a huge voter turnout marred by surprisingly little violence, may well be the most hopeful development in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Both candidates want quick approval of the BSA. If either can form a multiethnic government, and the Afghan security forces can continue to hold the center against the Taliban, then they could require less rather than more international assistance in the years to come.
Despite suspicions of fraud, a senior administration official who is deeply involved in Afghan relations says the election was "head and shoulders" more successful than previous elections in other troubled spots like Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. "Not just in administration and preparation [of the vote] but the in quality of the turnout, the intensity of the media coverage, the level of interest by the constituencies, the candidates' travel around the countries, the participation in rallies," the official says. It was also a distinct improvement over the fraud-marred vote in 2009, when Karzai was accused of stealing the election from Abdullah.
The relative lack of violence underscored a positive trend that has been largely drowned out by the horror stories of recent attacks, including the slaughter of nine people in a posh hotel in Kabul and the shooting of two AP journalists, one fatally, by a police officer. Despite that, a number of experts say, the Afghan security forces are actually beginning to congeal as an effective force, and the Taliban has failed to mount traditional attacks, having to resort to one-off acts of terror. And those forces are Abdullah's pride and joy; it was he who first laid out plans for a new Afghan army in January 2002 to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. But, distracted by their ambitions for Iraq and unhappy about the idea of "nation-building" in Afghanistan, they demurred at first. It required the surprise return of the Taliban to finally provoke Washington to act.
If the bilateral security agreement is signed, the new government may have enough firepower to hold off the Taliban with a residual international force left behind after America's planned withdrawal at the end of the year. Still, Ghani is worried about the effects of what he called the American-generated "security-developmental complex" in Afghanistan and other countries the U.S. has occupied — a deliberately ironic echo of Dwight Eisenhower's famous warning against a "military-industrial complex." "Every place except Japan and Germany where the U.S. has engaged in security assistance, the military has taken charge," he says. Ghani, however, notes that Afghanistan does not have a tradition of military coups: Even the Taliban, in 1992, turned things over to politicians.
Like Abdullah, Ghani has made an impressive transition from scholar to politician. In the last election, Ghani got only 3 percent of the vote; this time around, he traveled to every province over three years and pressed the flesh. Perhaps no potential president has been better schooled in finding a way to piece Afghanistan's impenetrably complex ethnic makeup into a political whole. Ghani's Ph.D. from Columbia University focused on explaining 300 years of Afghan history in which, he says, "everybody is related to everybody." Abdullah, who has a longer lineage of fighting inside Afghanistan, sees himself as a more legitimate heir to the presidency.
Whoever becomes president will still face a plethora of huge problems. Ghani, in the interview last year, sketched out the most worrisome scenario: that no consensus among the "political elites" will be reached in the post-Karzai era, leading to chaos, and possibly even a coup. The key question after the election results, he said, will be: "How does the loser acknowledge the winner? The legitimacy of the next election is going to come from the loser."
Ghani himself, or Abdullah, could be the one who puts that proposition to the test.