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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 helping.

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 the others.

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 weakened.

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 parity).

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 children.

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 local politics.

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.

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