Ashraf Ghani, the challenger who may topple Karzai

Former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani is one of President Hamid Karzai's most articulate and vociferous critics, and a chief contender against the incumbent in the upcoming August presidential election. A U.S.-educated former World Bank official, he quit Karzai's cabinet in 2004, finding it corrupt, and has since then turned down "at least 100 offers" to rejoin Karzai's team. Ghani, 60, talked to NEWSWEEK'S Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in his comfortable house in suburban Kabul. Excerpts:

Given the power of Karzai's incumbency and the deteriorating security situation, can you get your message out?
Absolutely. Karzai's political alliances represent a return to the pre-Taliban days. He has brought back discredited figures who have not served this country well. None has shown a sense of integrity or an ability to govern. Hundreds of people visit me daily because Karzai has made the choices that he's made.

Are you referring to people like Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the former Northern Alliance militia commander, whom he chose as his running mate?
Karzai chooses these guys because he lacks vision, leadership and management skills. Everything he does is a spur-of-the-moment compromise. People in Kabul say that he promised 232 individuals minis-terial positions, 949 people governorships and 1,000 people deputy ministerships. The president's word carries no weight. He is auctioning off the government for the sake of winning the election. Thanks to him, we are No. 176 on Transparency International's index.

Couldn't his next five years be different?
Not with the allies he made. He was elected in 2004 with overwhelming support. Then he spat on the will of the people.

Would five more years of Karzai make Afghanistan a failed state?
Yes. Five more years of Karzai is going to rob us of peace, development and stability.

Doesn't that help the Taliban?
It gives them a moral cause. Now the Taliban will be saying that the very people whom they ousted in the mid-1990s because they were incapable of governing are being restored wholesale. Is the function of a ministry to feed a politician or to deliver services?

How serious is the Taliban threat?
The largest threat to this country is this predatory government. Why did the Taliban reappear? People who expected justice, fair play and development feel betrayed.

So how would you clean up what you are calling a rotten system?
The first thing I would do is institute a citizens' report card. Every three months representative citizens of a province would get together and make a scorecard with me, grading the local government's performance. If the verdict is that the leaders are failing, then the governor and others will be dismissed.

What about lagging economic development?
I want to create 10 national projects that capture people's imagination: build 1 million housing units; create 1 million new jobs (not only male jobs); create 2,000 millionaires in the next five years so 25 families won't monopolize everything; and aid the 700,000 Afghans who have been disabled in the conflict. The Ministry of Finance acknowledges that 70 percent of the potential domestic revenue, which was $800 million last year, is being lost due to corruption and mismanagement.

President Karzai seems to be trying to initiate talks with the Taliban. Do you have a peace program?
Right now it's a futile dance. The president needs to produce theater for the West. The Afghan people don't believe he's serious.

Is the Taliban a possible partner in peace?
It depends on who you mean by Taliban. We have to have a unified national stance and not an individualized approach like Karzai's. One day he says, "I feel like negotiating," and offers Mullah Omar protection. The next day he calls the Taliban terrorists and killers. My habit is to ask people to talk first.