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Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani: Parliamentary system would destabilize country | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Ashraf Ghani speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 4, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Ashraf Ghani speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 4, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Ashraf Ghani speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 4, 2014. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Kabul, Asharq Al-Awsat—The world’s attention once more turned to Afghanistan as its citizens headed to the polls Saturday in presidential elections.

Thirteen years after an international coalition led by the United States ousted the Taliban government, Afghanistan remains troubled by violence and a weak economy.

After the ongoing violence, which spiked in the run up to these elections, its status as a major supplier of narcotics to the international market is perhaps its most pressing concern, producing more than 90 percent of the world’s opium at the expense of adequate food production. It ranked last in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, tying with North Korea and Somalia.

The country is also in the process of concluding a Status of Forces agreement with the United States as NATO troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014. Current president Hamid Karzai has dodged signing the agreement thus far, although all three leading candidates in Saturday’s elections have said they would sign it.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah was one of the two frontrunners in the presidential campaign, spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat about Afghans’ hopes for their future on the eve of the elections.

Ghani holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the US’s Columbia University, and in the 1990s worked as an advisor to the World Bank. A Pashtun, he returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and has since worked as chancellor of Kabul University and chief adviser to outgoing president Hamid Karzai.

In these elections, Vote counting will continue until April 20 with results expected on April 24. Complaints will be heard from April 7 to April 27 and a final result is expected to be announced on May 14.

Asharq Al-Awsat: If you are elected president, what will be your priority?

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai: The first priority is to ensure security. On my first day in office, I would move to create the office of the commander-in-chief that will provide a report on the security of the country every eight hours. The second priority is the economy. I will be forming the National Economic Council under my own leadership that will address the needs of businesses, as well as employment for the youth. The third issue is human capital—education—because the overwhelming majority of our country is young and quality education is key to transforming the country. Fourth is good governance; that is the key. Fifth is justice and rule of law.

Q: Who are you seeking to represent in these elections? Do you consider yourself to be the voice of women? The youth? The voice of the voiceless?

I am the voice of the center. The voice of consensus, where women, the youth, the poor, the disenfranchised, as well as religious scholars, artists and businessmen, come together around an agenda of national unity that is centrist, realizable and democratic.

Q: You have written articles and speeches that focus on how to fix a broken state. How do you fix a broken state in the short term?

In the short term, they key is to trust the people. You cannot fix a broken state without relying on the people. So you have to build from the bottom up and from the top down, so that there is an organic relationship and state and society unite.

Q: You addressed the problem of opium production. You wrote that opium production is worth 2.8 billion dollars and that one acre of opium is worth ten acres of wheat. How can Afghanistan solve this problem?

Part of the problem is actually where the Middle East is investing its money. The Gulf has changed its imports and food security structure. Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman are investing in long-term agriculture . . . Instead, we can have food processing. This is critical. So we will be seeking major investments from the Gulf in our agriculture [sector], and that investment could transform us.

The other issue is the Western world, which has to give us concessions—in theory they have—for our exports. We have to create a dynamic export-based economy. Wheat will not compete, as I’ve said, with opium, but textiles, processed food, saffron—those will compete. That is what we need, a regional market where the Gulf is incredibly important, and then Europe and the North American market.

Q: Do you think Saudi Arabia could play a future role in a peace settlement between the Taliban and government in Afghanistan?

Definitely. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is a moral authority, a respected figure, he can bring people together. He is a guardian of stability in the region, he does not want extremism; he represents moderate Islam as we received it from the Prophet. He speaks with authority, and that authority is extremely important to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The mediation of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf will be an important element to bring us together so we can end this conflict. This is a conflict which is in no-one’s interests.

Q: You said that if you win the elections, the first thing that you will do is visit Saudi Arabia to perform the umrah (minor) pilgrimage. Do you intend to keep to this pledge?

God willing. I began this campaign with an umrah, I went to the House of God [the Kaaba in Mecca] and then I went to Medina, and so I literately started the campaign after performing the umrah. It was unbelievably moving. It was my third umrah, and each time I go I am speechless.

Q: Do you fear that electoral fraud might happen this time? We heard a lot of reports of electoral fraud in the previous elections in 2004 and 2009. Do you fear a repeat in these elections?

I think that the possibility is much less, because at those times the citizens were not engaged. Now, the massive turnout is incredible. People went to the registration centers at 2 am and waited till 6 pm to register; people are taking their votes very seriously.

Q: How do you view the legacy of President Hamid Karzai?

That judgment is to be made by history, but one thing is certain, and that is that Hamid Karzai is the first man in our 5,000-year history who is going to leave office voluntarily and according to the constitution. That alone earns him a place in history. I deeply believe that our leaders need to be respected.

Q: What do you think is the best system of rule for Afghanistan? A presidential or parliamentary system?

We are not ready for a parliamentary system yet, because we don’t have major political parties. Once 2 to 4 major political parties are established you can have a parliamentary system. We have hundreds of political parties, but no major ones, and without major democratic parties you cannot run a parliamentary system. Otherwise you would have coalition governments until the end of the world, and that would destabilize Afghanistan.

Q: What do you think of the future of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US forces?

Our security forces have done a remarkable job. I was in charge of the security transition over the last three years and I am very proud of our security forces. They need ten more years of sustained attention. They began from scratch. They are like our soccer and cricket team: they began very low, but they have developed. Over the next ten years, they are really going to become excellent professional forces. I hope to be leading them as their commander-in-chief, in addition to investing in them, earning their trust and making sure that the use of force is diminished and does not increase. The best army is an army that is not used.

Do you have a message for the Arab world?

Of course, the Arab world is a circle that we’ve been bound to since the reign of Caliph Uthman. We share an enormous heritage. People of this country have contributed enormously to the Arab Muslim civilization, from Ghazali to Ibn Sina, and equally Arabic is fundamental for us to grasp the Holy Qur’an and Sunna of the Prophet.

More importantly, the Arab world has now become one of the largest centers of capital accumulation in the world. We seek a multi-dimensional relationship [with the Arab world]. Hajj is the duty of every Muslim, and Afghans are standing in line to perform it. Our knowledge of Arabic has increased phenomenally; I would like to see a major investment in the learning of Arabic. Our religious scholars need to be connected to Al-Azhar [in Egypt], the UAE, Jordan, and the rest of the Arab world. This is a binding relationship and it will endure.