Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, one of two candidates in Afghanistan’s June 14 presidential election runoff, is confident he’ll win and said he’d sign a security pact with the U.S. “within a week” of taking power.
Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank economist, said in a May 24 interview that he wouldn’t make any changes to the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. that outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign. He said he’ll send the pact to parliament for approval within a week as well.
“I was one of the chief negotiators and I know every word and I will not change anything,” Ghani, 64, said at his house in Kabul, referring to the agreement. “Without the BSA, our security sector will face a national crisis.”
Ghani is challenging Abdullah Abdullah, who won the most votes in the first round on April 5. Both have pledged to sign the pact, which would allow U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond this year and secure billions of dollars in aid money for Asia’s poorest country, which spends nearly half of its budget on security after 13 years of war against the Taliban.
U.S. President Barack Obama visited Afghanistan last night for the first time in two years, making an unannounced visit with troops during the weekend the U.S. honors members of the armed forces who died in the service of their country.
Karzai declined to meet with Obama at Bagram Airfield, and said Afghanistan would welcome the U.S. president at the presidential palace, according to a statement from Karzai’s press office. Obama called Karzai from Air Force One on his departure from Afghanistan, according to a senior administration official.
The $2 billion in revenue Afghanistan generates on its own falls short of the $4.1 billion it will need annually for security from 2015, Ghani said. Before running for president, he led a commission in charge of transferring security operations from the U.S.-led coalition to Afghan forces.
“There is no alternative source of financing,” Ghani said, referring to the U.S. pact. “Our security forces must be confident that they are being paid, that they are being equipped, that they are being trained.”
Obama in February asked the Pentagon to prepare plans for withdrawal of all forces by December, while waiting to see if the next Afghan leader will sign the BSA. The U.S. Congress cut Afghanistan’s aid budget by about half to $1.12 billion for 2014. Foreign grants pay for about 50 percent of the government’s expenditures, according to the World Bank.
The U.S. Defense Department will prepare three scenarios for war funding next year depending on how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan, according to an internal Pentagon e-mail obtained April 24 by Bloomberg News.
One estimate would take into account 10,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country, another would presume 5,000, and a third would imply no presence as of Jan. 1, 2015, according to the e-mail sent by John Roth, the Pentagon’s deputy comptroller for programs and budgets.
“In the next 10 years, our strategic partnership with the U.S., Europe and Japan is vital,” Ghani said. “That’s the partnership that’s going to produce security, economic cooperation, economic growth and, most significantly, diplomatic capability to change the region. Without the U.S., to think that we can have regional stability and cooperation is very difficult.”
The Afghan war has cost 2,314 Americans their lives and wounded 19,701 as of April 21. The U.S. has spent more than $710 billion on the conflict since 2001, according to the National Priorities Project, which studies federal spending.
Ghani last week received an endorsement from Ahmad Zia Massoud, a running mate of third-place presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul, who is backing Abdullah in the runoff. Massoud is a “major national figure” who can bring votes, Ghani said, adding that Rassoul lacks popular support.
“We are confident that victory is ours,” Ghani said.
Abdullah won 45 percent of more than 7 million votes, with Ghani taking 32 percent. Rassoul finished with about 12 percent.
Afghanistan’s economy has expanded eightfold since 2001 to $20.5 billion, while its infant mortality has declined 33 percent and school enrollment has risen to 7.8 million from 1 million in 2002, official data and figures from the World Bank show.
Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun who served as Afghanistan’s finance minister from 2002-2004 and finished fourth in the 2009 election. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in New York.
Abdullah, 53, is half Pashtun and half Tajik. As foreign minister under Karzai, he was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, an ethnic Tajik seen by many Afghans as a national hero who fought against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.
Pashtuns account for 42 percent of Afghanistan’s 32 million people, while Tajiks make up 27 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. Uzbeks and Hazaras account for 9 percent and other groups comprise the rest.
Ghani said he has the backing of both jihadi and secular groups and has support in all parts of the country. There are “indications” he can reach out to the Taliban and make peace, he said.
“The cost of war is borne by the international community and poor Afghans because we have a volunteer army and police that every day goes to the coffin,” Ghani said. “I am dedicated to bring lasting peace, not a temporary peace.”
(An earlier version of this story was corrected to say the interview was conducted on May 24.)