U.S. Officials See Karzai Rival Ghani as Potential Chief Executive

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 10 -- Senior American officials are expressing renewed interest in a post-election plan for Afghanistan that would establish a chief executive to serve beneath President Hamid Karzai if he wins a second term next week, Afghan officials said Monday.

The latest U.S. overtures have focused on Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who is challenging Karzai for the presidency. A campaign aide to Ghani said Monday that both Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and regional envoy Richard C. Holbrooke had made recent visits to explore the idea, a sign that the United States might be interested in an Afghan government with a more technocratic bent.

American officials have grown increasingly disenchanted with Karzai's leadership over the past five years, amid rising Taliban violence, rampant corruption and an ineffective bureaucracy. The idea of a chief executive for Afghanistan has circulated before in recent months, and speculation at one point arose that former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American, was in the running.

Ghani, a former finance minister with a doctorate from Columbia University, has worked for the World Bank and has a reputation as a competent technocrat. His work on Afghanistan's currency and budget during his time as a finance minister has drawn positive reviews, although colleagues have sometimes found him abrasive. As one of the main challengers to Karzai, who is the clear front-runner, Ghani has no plans to drop out of the race before the Aug. 20 election. He has been actively campaigning for president and plans to visit six provinces in the next eight days.

"I've been approached repeatedly; the offer is on the table. I have not accepted it," Ghani told reporters over the weekend, according to Reuters. He has not ruled out a position in the government if he loses.

Ongoing Negotiations

A spokesman for Karzai, Wahid Omar, would not confirm the specific offer from Karzai, but said there have been ongoing negotiations between the two campaigns. "Karzai does believe it is a good idea that someone like Ghani joins the team, and as a result the future government would be a stronger government," he said.

An Afghan official familiar with the negotiations said that Ghani expressed willingness to serve in a Karzai government, but that he wanted power to implement his own programs. The official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said negotiations on the issue were ongoing.

In a poll released Monday, Karzai led with 45 percent of the vote among decided voters, compared with 25 percent for Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister. The U.S.-government-funded poll by Glevum Associates, conducted July 8-19, had Ghani fourth, with 4 percent of the vote.

During the campaign, Karzai has courted support from warlords, such as his running mate, Marshal Mohammed Fahim, the powerful Tajik leader, and Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, an Uzbek commander accused of slaughtering Taliban prisoners in 2001. American officials have said they are concerned that important jobs after the election may be given away in patronage without a focus on competence.

An Antidote to Karzai?

Some see Ghani as a modern managerial antidote to Karzai, who is known more as a dealmaker among rival factions.

"Karzai doesn't think in terms of growth in GDP in Afghanistan, unemployment, more services or security," said Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research & Policy Studies. "He's a consensus builder. As long as he could win a consensus of important power brokers, he thinks he's a very successful man."

The jockeying came amid further violence in Afghanistan, which has intensified ahead of the elections.

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