Aghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani is in Washington, D.C., this week for his first official visit. He will go to Capitol Hill and to the White House, where he's expected to push to slow down the drawdown of American troops so that more of them will stay longer in Afghanistan.
That request will be taken seriously, in no small part because President Obama has embraced Ghani as the partner he never had in former President Hamid Karzai.
And certainly, Ghani could hardly be more different than his predecessor. He spent 20 years in the West — mostly as an official at the World Bank, where he specialized in economically troubled countries. He's happy to be called a technocrat and a reformer. In his six months on the job, Ghani has taken very public aim at rapacious governors and corrupt ministries.
Soon after he arrived on Sunday, Morning Edition host Renee Montagne joined him at the White House guest quarters: Blair House. The following is a transcript of the interview:
RENEE MONTAGNE: President Ashraf Ghani, good morning.
ASHRAF GHANI: Good morning to you and to your listeners.
RM: You came into office pledging to fight corruption. This was a top priority. Corruption is something that has become endemic to Afghanistan over these past years. What, though, is the damage? Who or what is hurt when corruption reaches this level?
AG: First, the poor are hurt. Thirty-six percent of the Afghan population lives below poverty. Second, women are hurt. We have, unfortunately, thanks to 36 years of conflict, a lot of female-headed households. Three, the youth are hurt. Our majority are youth, under 30. They have no hope. They don't get jobs. To sum up, the country hurts. The good news is that it can be overcome. The bad news is that it requires enormous amount of effort, and determination and focus. And there'll be a lot of resistance to it.
RM: Let me say, you have, since taking office — you have fired a fair number of people. I mean, just recently, to give an example to our listeners, just recently you visited the province of Herat, which borders Iran, which is prosperous but has a big drug smuggling problem, drugs coming in from Iran and going out from Afghanistan. And when you were down there, one of the things you did was fire it seems like dozens of workers, from border guards to district governors. Who do you replace these people with? Is there a group of honest, competent people out there that you're drawing from?
AG: Yes. That's why we could form a government of national unity fighting corruption. The ordinary Afghan is sick and tired of it, because it's she or he that pays the price. If you've just graduated from a teachers training college and the provincial director wants $2,000 from you, how are you going to pay it?
RM: The provincial director, education director.
AG: Yes, of education, for instance, which was one of the fired.
RM: One of the people, one of the people fired in Herat.
AG: Yes, exactly. And the system prevented the honest people from working. We aren't discovering a lot of talent because an honest system brings honest people. For instance, salaries. Salaries are a huge area of corruption. We are now talking to some of the most innovative thinkers in technology that we could become the first country that can make payments of all salaries through the phone.
RM: Through the phone?
RM: Clear out the middle man.
AG: Clear the middle man. So some of those solutions lie in innovative technology. But the most significant thing is public participation. That assures the Afghan public that our promises are not empty.
RM: Could you give us an example of one specific project or ministry you're dealing with?
AG: Absolutely — the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Defense. There were allegations that there was a difference in fuel contract for three years, which was roughly estimated at one billion [dollars]. And that the difference between the contract that was accepted and the other bids were $211 million. I cancelled it. I rebid the entire process and I suspended all the officials who were engaged in it. So there is a full investigation of everyone underway. We are going to save the Afghan treasury and the American public, who are underwriting the bill, hopefully tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. And in the process, now we've changed the procurement system, the way we purchase goods. It is reviewed by a committee with impeccable credential for honesty and I personally review the ultimate contracts with a core group of officials under my own chairmanship.
RM: Although critics have taken to suggesting that maybe you're taking too much power to yourself. I think I've heard the word "dictator" uttered on this score. Do you have to, as the president of Afghanistan, actually oversee the contracts yourself?
AG: For the large contracts, yes. And I'm not doing it. I'm chairing a commission.
RM: But it's a presidential commission?
AG: It's a presidential commission.
RM: And it overrides ministers?
AG: No, the ministers are members of it. But the due process needs to be observed because that's the seal of integrity. President Truman made his name by looking into contracting. And that's how integrity within the military procurement started in the United States.
RM: The buck stops here.
AG: Yes. So, the other is, I'm not taking power. I'm catalyzing systemic change. So for a couple of years, we will centralize procurement, then it's going to go again to credible entities and institutions that could take care of it.
RM: Let me interject something you would know better than anybody. No economy can fully function when large swaths of the country are conflict zones, when a simple delivery truck can't go into a province next door to the capital, Kabul. Now you're going to be meeting with President Obama this week to work on troop levels and timetables. But let me just ask you a larger question. I think it's fair to say average Americans think that the average Afghan doesn't want American troops in their country. How true is that?
AG: It's not true. Former President Karzai held a consultative assembly, September of 2013. He brought representatives from all over the country and he asked them whether they approved of the bilateral security agreement. They overwhelmingly said yes.
RM: And why do Afghans want troops in their country?
AG: Because, because they see the United States as critical to their future. You cannot imagine what life was like in December of 2001.
RM: I can, I saw Kabul. Kabul was destroyed.
AG: Kabul itself was ground zero. West Kabul now, which is thriving, was totally devastated. It looked like ruins from the medieval times. So it's a different country and the United States has been critical to this. Over a million American soldiers have served with Afghans over these years. They've gotten to know our remotest valleys, our deserts, our mountains. And the majority of them that I've encountered will tell you something that moves me to tears. They say they've left their hearts in Afghanistan.
RM: There has been at least one former militant, a Taliban commander in the South who identified himself as ISIS. He's gone now, I think, as I understand it.
AG: He's gone.
RM: He's gone. But how great, President Ghani, is the threat that ISIS will spread into Afghanistan? What is the likelihood? And is the concern, is it great enough to be an argument for troops staying longer?
AG: Daish, its Arabic name —
RM: Daish, yes, ISIS.
AG: It goes through four phases. Organize, orient, decide, enact. We documented the first three phases. We preempted them from acting. If al-Qaida, all apologies to Microsoft for the analogy, is Windows 1, Daish is Windows 5. So, they are posing a threat, but we are determined to make sure that they do not do the kind of atrocities that they've managed in Syria, Iraq, Libya or Yemen.
RM: A few days ago, a group of young men beat to death a young woman. They thought she had burned the pages of the Quran. Her parents say she was mentally ill. She was killed at a famous shrine right in the middle of the day, in the middle of Kabul, with a crowd urging these guys on. To them desecrating the Quran is punishable by death. But what do you as president say to these men who killed this woman? What do you say to them because they also are your people?
AG: No, they are my people, they suffer from post-stress disorder syndrome.
RM: From the whole — they're young, but from whole endless war.
AG: The endless war. But my message to them has been very clear. There's no place for mob justice in Afghanistan. I've put a commission — I've put some of the most respected religious scholars on it — women's activists, civil rights activists, human rights activists and they are going to investigate this. Ninety percent of our police are fighting terrorists, so we don't have enough oriented towards their key duty, which is enforcement of the law. But these are precisely the inheritance that we want to overcome. Particularly the mark for success for us would be that a woman can not only walk in the streets of every major city, but can go from one province to another without any hindrance.
And our women are doing remarkable things, you know. One of them has written a poem. She's a 17-year-old that won the first prize in the Emirates Airlines poetry contest. And her poem is that she fell through the Wonderland — it's a play on Alice. And then she says we are all mad, because to love ugly is the real love. Because to love something beautiful is easy. But when windows shatter through a bomb, we will repair it next week because we are Afghans. That's the spirit. That's what will keep us going.
RM: President Ghani, thank you very much.
AG: Thank you.