'The Ball Is in His Court'

Afghan President Hamid Karzai can continue down the path of corruption—or he can step up and become a statesman. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Karzai’s challenger in August’s election, Ashraf Ghani, talks about his rival’s challenge.

Massoud Hossaini, AFP / Getty Images

In August, Ashraf Ghani came within a stone’s throw of the Afghan presidency, finishing third behind Abdullah Abdullah and the eventual winner, Hamid Karzai. Since then, the former Afghan finance minister has traveled the world trying to drum up civilian and economic support for his country, even as he takes Karzai to task for his lack of leadership and the alleged corruption of his administration. What Afghanistan needs, Ghani says, is a “virtual surge” and “counterinsurgency economics” to go along with the United States’ new military commitment. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Ghani expresses doubt that Karzai—whose administration is at the root of so much corruption—will be able to fix it.

“Hamid Karzai is in office in Afghanistan because of necessity, not because of legitimacy.”

What is your opinion of the new war strategy rolled out by President Obama, which calls for an increase of 30,000 combat troops in Afghanistan but only for a period of 18 months?

The plan, as far as the security component of it is concerned, is well thought out and provides a window of opportunity for all parties and all stakeholders to prove their commitment to Afghanistan, [but] the new approach needs to be tested for the validity of its assumptions…The problem is with the civilian component [of the new strategy]. While the security community has learned, and reflected, and adapted, the developmental community has not. Developmental interventions in Afghanistan are in a crisis: a crisis of ineffectiveness and, at the extremes, a crisis of corruption. The key is not to get a “civilian surge” on the ground with people who may not have the best qualifications, but rather to pursue a “virtual surge,” meaning that the best of U.S. capability, both at the state and the federal level, is mobilized to help Afghanistan. That could significantly change the dynamics because 100,000 Afghans are quite capable of carrying the ball on the ground if they were supported by Web-based communications led by people here in the U.S.

You talk about certain assumptions that President Obama has made. Would one of those assumptions be that the current administration of Hamid Karzai is one that the U.S. can trust as a partner?

Hamid Karzai is in office in Afghanistan because of necessity, not because of legitimacy—necessity in the sense that the people of Afghanistan did not want violence to settle the election results. We’ve accepted a flawed process in order to move on with our lives. The United Nations singularly failed to do its duty in terms of facilitating and presiding over a free and fair election. Now that Mr. Karzai has been declared the president, the key is to help him become a statesman. Karzai has an option: Either he becomes an outcast or he becomes a statesman. To become an outcast, he doesn’t need to do anything more than to continue on the course that he’s pursued over the last five years. But that is not in the best interest of Afghanistan or of the world. What we need to focus on is not the flawed election but the future. And the future means we have to construct institutions of governance—including the electoral institutions—that would ensure that nothing ever resembles the flawed elections of 2009, so the people’s trust can be regained.

Do you have confidence that Mr. Karzai will choose to become a statesman?

That depends on him. The ball is in his court. What I am expressing, as an Afghan citizen, is the desire and the hope that he will rise to the challenge. The burden is on our side—the Afghan civil society and political actors—to make sure that we do not tolerate any deviation from the path of statesmanship. The negative interest groups in Afghanistan have mobilized and have continually asked for concessions that have resulted in the destruction of the social, economic, and political fabric of Afghan society. Now it is our task to become positive agents of pressure on the government and engage as active citizens to offer alternatives.

President Karzai has repeatedly stated that Afghanistan will not be able to provide for its own security until 2024. Do you agree with this assessment?

I fundamentally differ from this assessment. We can provide for our own security well before then. The key is how we mobilize our latent assets. We have over 100,000 trained army officers that are today unemployed. If we mobilized that type of capability and used what I call “counterinsurgency economics” to promote the proper creation of jobs and develop economic opportunities… then we can provide for our security much earlier [than 2024]. We need to be responsible stakeholders in this endeavor. And we cannot keep asking others to do jobs that we must do ourselves. The only way that Afghanistan can regain its respect as a fully sovereign state is for us to take control of the agenda, to pull the international community toward our vision, rather than be pushed by its vision.

In laying out his new Afghanistan strategy, President Obama claimed that the failure of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan will result in that country once again becoming a haven for transnational terror organizations like al Qaeda. Most terrorism experts that I have spoken to do not believe that this is a real possibility. What do you think?

With all due respect to the opinion of those experts, the threat of al Qaeda is serious. There are some people who, because of their politics, need to declare that the threat from al Qaeda is over. But the threat is very real, as is the possibility of major violence should U.S. forces withdraw precipitously.

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Part of the new war strategy is to reach out to certain members of the Taliban—those willing to put down their weapons in exchange for money and the promise of semi-autonomy. What is your opinion of this strategy?

There is consensus in Afghanistan that the conflict cannot end without a peace-building strategy. We need to understand that force alone cannot settle this conflict. We need a political roadmap that can bring peace and stability, and we need engagement with Taliban elements. The challenge is to turn all these nice phrases into a mechanism that can deliver peace.

This is a question that is not asked often enough: What is the Taliban?

The Taliban is a very complex social phenomenon made up of many strands and driven by many reasons and causes. One major component of the Taliban is those who have taken up arms to oppose injustice and corruption. The simple fact that we need to remember regarding this complex question is what happened with the Taliban between 2001 and 2005. They disappeared. Nobody wanted to talk about them. Their rank and file trusted the political process and went back to their villages. I’ve talked to hundreds of people in the south and all of them agreed on one thing: that injustice, misrule, corruption, abuse of government authority by some very corrupt officials and political brokers—these are the causes that drove the people first to alienation then to active opposition. We also must be careful not to attribute unity or overall command and control to a movement that is really composed of a number of networks—networks composed of very diverse people who come together under a common platform but who often differ on an enormous number of other issues. The key to defeating the Taliban is the weakness of the government and the lack of coherence hitherto of the international community to come up with a coherent approach, not the strength of the Taliban.

And do you believe that the strategy outlined by President Obama will finally achieve the coherent policy of which you speak?

I hope so. As I pointed out earlier, the security part of the new approach will work out fine. The civilian and political part—development and governance—that has yet to be worked out.

What is the role of the regional powers, especially Pakistan, in creating a peaceful and secure Afghanistan? Would you say Pakistan has played a positive or negative role in Afghanistan?

It has been both. Between 2001 and 2005 Pakistan was part of the regional consensus on stability in Afghanistan. It played a positive role during the Bonn process. Subsequently it has ended up playing a very negative role, giving sanctuary to the leadership of the Taliban and other elements that are actively subverting the political process in Afghanistan. Now, the emergence of the local Pakistani Taliban, and the threat that they have presented to the Pakistan government, will hopefully bring about the realization that Pakistan cannot treat their own Taliban as a threat and our Taliban as an asset. We need to understand that Afghanistan and Pakistan are mutually dependent on each other. You cannot have an insecure Afghanistan and a secure Pakistan, or vice versa.

What do you think is missing from America’s new Afghanistan strategy?

What is missing is the integration of a security and a civilian strategy. That is not the problem of the president of the United States. That is the problem of the civilian sector of the United States. USAID, for instance, is an organization in crisis. How can you entrust the development of a country like Afghanistan to a dysfunctional organization like USAID? That is why I am calling for a “virtual surge” because the capacity exists in the United States, in the Department of Agriculture, in the universities—the range of capabilities in the United States knows no bounds. But why rely on the most dysfunctional part of the U.S. government, namely USAID, to become the agent of transformation of the economy or governance of Afghanistan? That’s not possible. That’s the part that needs serious attention.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestsellerNo god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.