Death haunts Ashraf Ghani. A gaunt 55-year-old who
constantly fingers his prayer beads, the Finance minister of
Afghanistan consumes three meals in as many hours during a
recent visit, to provide constant sustenance to his
cancer-ravaged body. "I only have about 2 percent of my stomach
left," he explains matter-of-factly as he devours a breakfast
of rice and bananas while his chef prepares another
Nearby, four bodyguards carrying Kalashnikovs scan the
grounds of Ghani's modest villa in the leafy Wazir Akbar Khan
district, where Kabul's elite live and work, barricaded against
car bombs. From overhead comes the nonstop buzz of NATO
helicopter gunships. Barely a week goes by without at least one
senior Afghan official being assassinated.
"This job is one of the worst on the face of the earth,"
sighs Ghani, whose cancer, at least, is in remission.
His job is certainly one of the most challenging. A former
World Bank technocrat with a Ph.D. in anthropology, Ghani's
brief is to do nothing less than rebuild Afghanistan's wrecked
economy. He must accomplish this, moreover, as a member of
President Hamid Karzai's transitional government, which
controls the dusty, high desert capital of Kabul -- with the
aid of 20,000 U.S. and NATO troops -- but only patches of the
rest of the country, where most of the people live.
As if this weren't daunting enough, the Taliban, the
fanatical group that turned Afghanistan into an extreme Muslim
theocracy until it was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion three
years ago, has issued what amounts to a death warrant on Ghani.
An Islamic scholar, he in February 2001 used an ancient Arabic
insult -- jahil, meaning pre-Islamic and therefore
preenlightened -- to suggest the Taliban were uncivilized. The
Taliban, though routed, remain a significant presence
throughout Afghanistan. Remnants of al-Qaeda also lurk in the
rugged mountains on the Pakistani border.
Powerful provincial warlords, hardened by brutal civil war,
oppose ceding power to, or even sharing resources with, the
weak, foreign-backed government. As Ghani acknowledges, "I am a
force for modernization and moderation, and I know that offends
many people in this country." For their part, many ordinary
Afghans are angry about the government's slow progress in
addressing economic, security and political needs.
"Normalcy is what the people of this country crave," Ghani
says, fingering his omnipresent worry beads. "They want to be
able to get into a bus, sit next to a stranger, a foreigner
preferably, to talk to who they want, to go home and be
guaranteed that their houses will be there when they do.
Afghans want a routine that moves their lives forward. We don't
want helicopters, and we don't want bodyguards."
The Finance minister, who spent 25 years in the U.S. before
returning to his homeland at Karzai's behest in February 2002,
adds, "If we can achieve that, then my work will be done."
If Ghani fails, however, the consequences could be dire not
only for Afghanistan but also for the West, notably the U.S.
Afghanistan, with its difficult mountainous terrain, could
readily revert to being a terrorist haven, but for sustained
foreign military intervention on a large scale.
What's more, Ghani points out, Afghanistan, once one of the
world's biggest exporters of dried fruit, today depends on
opium to sustain its economy. The raw ingredient of heroin
netted about $2.2 billion for the country in 2003, or the
equivalent of half its legal economy. Making a pitch for
foreign investment, Ghani says that the global private sector
isn't doing its part in fighting terrorism and drugs in
Afghanistan. Foreign companies invested just $100 million in
the country last year. Ghani tells Institutional Investor that
Afghanistan must attract $15 billion in foreign private sector
investment to create a modern economy.
The Finance minister, though, has a more immediate priority.
On October 9 the economic rebuilding campaign of Karzai and
Ghani faces a crucial test: Afghanistan's first-ever elections.
Although the U.S.-backed Karzai is considered the favorite, he
faces an unexpectedly large number of opponents; 18 candidates
have registered -- including a few warlords, such as the feared
Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum. The Taliban, meanwhile, have
been seeking to disrupt the United Nations' surprisingly
successful efforts to register Afghan citizens (some 90 percent
of the country's estimated 9.6 million eligible voters have
signed up). And insurgents have become increasingly bold in
attacking U.S., NATO and Afghan troops. One disturbing sign: In
July, Doctors Without Borders pulled out of Afghanistan after
24 years; five of its staffers had been killed the month
before, and the government couldn't guarantee protection for
A distinct possibility now exists that Karzai won't receive
the majority of votes he needs to avoid a debilitating runoff
with the second-place finisher. And even if the president does
prevail in a runoff, his government could be badly
Indeed, the legitimacy of the foreign-sponsored Karzai
transitional government -- and, in a real sense, of Afghan
democracy itself -- is at stake in the forthcoming election. If
Karzai wins at least 51 percent in the initial vote and the
elections pass reasonably peacefully, Ghani can push forward
with his program of restoring the Finance Ministry's
capabilities and authority so that it can streamline the
country's messy fiscal processes and create a national budget.
In the unlikely, but not inconceivable, event that Karzai is
supplanted by a warlord opposed to the concept of a strong
national government, Ghani could well be out of a job. The
Finance minister will accept whatever happens. "If you want to
get results," he says, "you have to take the risks."
Ghani, through his wide contacts in the international aid
community, has been able to keep Afghanistan's lifeblood --
foreign assistance -- flowing. Aid organizations, including the
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have provided
$2 billion and pledged a further $8 billion through 2007.
"If I say no to Ashraf, he calls George Bush or [World Bank
president] Jim Wolfensohn because he knows he can -- I didn't
have that issue in Ouagadougou," says the World Bank's country
chief in Afghanistan, Jean Mazurelle, who arrived in Kabul from
a posting in Burkina Faso.
"Ghani is a visionary," says Allan Kelly, the Asian
Development Bank's representative in Afghanistan. "He knows the
development community, he knows what the community wants, he
knows what he wants, and he has the intellectual rigor to
demand it. He's also very committed, he's charming, and at
times one sees -- how best to put this? -- a mercurial edge
that can be used strategically."
To Ghani that $10 billion from the IMF and World Bank is a
start but "won't be enough." He estimates that Afghanistan will
need $28 billion to $30 billion in foreign aid and private
investment over the next six years to rebuild roads, schools
and hospitals, and on and on.
Afghanistan, after being invaded by superpowers twice in the
past 25 years (the Soviet Union in 1979, the U.S. in 2001) and
engaging in fierce internal wars of its own -- on top of which
it has suffered a series of devastating droughts -- is in
shambles. This onetime regional trading center has a
skeletal transportation system and hardly any power
infrastructure. Not far behind opium as the biggest driver of
the economy is spending by foreign advisers. Without these two
sources of revenue, GDP per capita would be far less than the
U.N.'s estimate of a meager $700 (based on purchasing power
ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, GHANI was working at
his desk at the World Bank on H Street in Washington when
hijacked planes ripped into New York's World Trade Center and
the Pentagon in Washington. He was horrified by what he saw on
television. But he also recognized that the disaster might
provide a serendipitous chance for Afghanistan to make a new
beginning. After most of his colleagues had left for home that
day, he says, "I sat in my office for three hours, and I
thought through the strategy for transition in Afghanistan. I
knew absolutely, instinctively, that horrible though that day
was for many people and also for humanity, that the Taliban and
al-Qaeda were finished and that there was an opportunity for
this country that we had to grasp."
Ghani had been waiting for 25 years for a chance to come to
his homeland's assistance. From the aristocratic Ahmadzai
nomadic clan from Afghanistan's south -- his brother Hashmat is
a national leader of the nomadic Kuchis -- Ghani spent the
early 1970s at Beirut's prestigious American University.
Initially enrolled in the engineering school, he switched to
political science. It was at American University that he met
his wife, Rula, a Lebanese Christian who also studied political
science and has held a variety of jobs, including being a
journalist, over the years. She has joined her husband in Kabul
and works with several organizations that help local
While at school, Ghani made influential friends. One of his
former classmates is Anwar Ul-Haq Ahady, head of Afghanistan's
central bank. Ahady, who was a year behind Ghani, remembers him
as a "very serious student." Another ex-classmate is Zalmay
Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, whom some
consider the most powerful person in the country because of his
sway over Washington's deployment of aid and his influence in
Ghani returned to Afghanistan in 1974 and taught Afghan
studies and anthropology at Kabul University before winning a
government scholarship to study for a master's degree in
anthropology at New York's Columbia University. As he was
preparing to leave for the U.S. in the summer of 1977,
Afghanistan was already experiencing what would turn out to be
protracted political upheaval. Four years earlier King Mohammad
Zahir Shah had been ousted in a coup, while visiting Italy, by
his cousin, Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud. Daud installed a
military government, but in early 1977 he returned the country
to nominal civilian rule -- with himself as president.