U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was reelected in a fraud-ridden election in August, that he risks losing international support unless he radically overhauls his corrupt and incompetent administration. Ashraf Ghani, Karzai's former finance minister turned presidential rival, is often mentioned as someone who could help him meet the tough new benchmarks imposed by Afghanistan's foreign backers. Last week Ghani met with NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in his suburban Kabul home to offer his outlook on Afghanistan and discuss his plans. Excerpts:
Can Karzai meet Obama's and Brown's demands?
Karzai has a choice: to become a statesman or an outcast. To become an outcast he only needs to persist in doing what he has been doing. The first test will come soon in his choice of cabinet, governors, and other high-ranking officials. Will he pay back those who secured him the election through whatever means they judged necessary? Or will he rise from the ashes and become the consensus builder and team player he was from 2001 to 2004?
Do you think he's capable of that?
Yes. He has a different interlocutor in Washington. Afghanistan is now a domestic U.S. issue. They are no longer going to settle for words and promises. Bush told Karzai, "We understand your difficulties." That kind of coddling is over.
But will a new Karzai emerge?
The future of Afghanistan, and perhaps of Obama's presidency, hangs on getting Afghanistan right. We have the levers to get it right. For the first time since 9/11 there is an agreement between the Afghan public and the U.S. administration. Both sides want the same thing: an Afghanistan that is governed properly. What stands in the way? The corruption, mismanagement, and predatory behavior that was tolerated by the Bush administration and was aided and abetted by Karzai.
Does Karzai have the power to make the rapid changes necessary?
Absolutely. The power of negative forces [warlords and corrupt officials] is wildly exaggerated. They are empty balloons. Not once has the removal of a governor been resisted. Is a governor going to go to war? No. The power of these people is a total byproduct of the West's and Karzai's tolerance for them. What have all these powerful Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik, or Pashtun politicians delivered to their provinces? Nothing.
Are Afghans losing their patience?
Karzai will have no honeymoon. Today his political stock is very low, even non-existent. His urgent task is to build confidence with the Afghan public. If the public turns its back on the government, the insurgency will thrive.
Haven't the people done that already?
No, people want the government to succeed. The election is over. Karzai's there in the palace, not because of the legitimacy of the election but because of necessity. But necessity can be turned into legitimacy if it is handled with care and real dedication.
Would you join the administration?
It would be conditional on a program of fundamental reforms, a cabinet that could function as a team, and a clear sense of benchmarks and priorities so we don't joke around.
What about the Taliban insurgency?
The last two months were a gift to them. The uncertainty [around the election] created a vacuum that the Taliban filled. But one of the good parts of the election is that all of the major candidates committed themselves to dialogue [with the insurgents]. We acknowledged the need for a political, not a military, solution. That's been a significant gain. That kind of public commitment was not there. There's a basis from which we can move.