By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 15, 2009; A08
KABUL, Aug. 14 -- Ask presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani how he would curb the corruption permeating the ranks of the Afghan government -- the "cancer that is eating through our society," as he puts it -- and the answer is a barrage of detailed plans and programs.
If elected, Ghani said, he would require 3,000 civilian and military leaders to disclose their assets. He would mandate thrice-yearly "citizen report cards" for officials from district-level administrators up to cabinet ministers. He would link the salaries of civil servants such as teachers to growth in state revenue and decline in corruption.
And he would require that within five years, 50 percent of government jobs be turned over to people younger than 30, who constitute the majority of the population, in an attempt to dismantle nepotism and patronage networks.
"There's no vision as to where this country should go," he said of the current government in a recent interview, as he reclined on cushions in his garden in Kabul. "There has been no leadership."
Ghani, a 60-year-old author, former finance minister and professor with a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University, is the most cerebral of the candidates running in Thursday's election. He moves from clipped, precise English to the Afghan languages of Pashto and Dari, and he speaks some French and Arabic.
U.S. officials are partial to Ghani, a politician in the mold of Iraq's articulate Kurdish deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, or Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad -- Western-educated leaders who can describe their people's problems to Americans in English. Ghani has attracted American campaign volunteers and brought on Democratic strategist James Carville as an adviser.
But for Ghani, who spent 24 years abroad, including a long stint with the World Bank, this ease with the West does not appear to have translated into wide popularity at home. Two recent polls by U.S.-based firms have him running fourth in the election, with 4 and 6 percent of the vote, respectively. President Hamid Karzai remains the front-runner, with approval numbers in the mid-40-percent range.
"Ashraf Ghani has the complete solution, but he's off-putting to a large number of the Afghans, and not for ethnic reasons," said one U.S. official in Afghanistan. "Too much of Ashraf Ghani's campaign is in the West."
Ghani disputes that, saying he has spent more time than his opponents listening to the problems of average Afghans.
"The problem is that the West sees me at the side that they know," he said. "I speak to you in English. If I spoke to you in Pashto, I'll be incomprehensible. But when I speak Pashto, or in Dari, my Afghans see me operating as an Afghan."
He dismisses the polls, saying they were conducted before his televised debate against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah on July 23 (Karzai chose not to participate). Ghani's campaign took a hit this week when Abdullah pulled out of a second planned debate. "The two campaigns are hiding behind advertisements in a way that is not advantageous for the nation," Ghani said in a statement Friday.
"The polls have never gotten anything right in Afghanistan. I would like to see one prediction by foreigners that has come true in Afghanistan," Ghani said in the interview. "I know this country more intimately. I'd like to challenge anybody who has as detailed a plan for every province of Afghanistan as I do, or as detailed a level of knowledge."
His technocratic background has made him a leading candidate for a potential chief executive position, should Karzai win reelection. Karzai has offered him the position and U.S. officials have discussed it with him, Ghani said, but he has so far rejected it.
"I hope first to beat him. But if there is a need for a national government, we need to think about it. Those issues are premature now," he said, noting that Karzai had approached him with similar offers over the past three years. "If Mr. Karzai wins and wanted me to be a part of his government, he would have to sacrifice a lot of his bad habits."
Ghani has called for reforming Afghanistan's judicial system and closing the detention center at Bagram air base and all other international prisons in the country within three years. He also says that boosting the numbers of U.S. troops here is necessary to make up for the Bush administration's neglect of Afghanistan. For now, he said, his focus is on alleviating the problems of women, young people and the poor.
"The government is not a source of enrichment for me," he said, adding that his candidacy is "strictly driven by service."