KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – His office is a small tent erected on the shoulder of the highway that runs in front of the Afghan parliament building. Inside, a tattered flag of Afghanistan hangs behind a small desk that is surrounded by a half dozen plastic chairs. Seated behind the desk is the slightly built Dr. Ramazan Bashardost, a former cabinet minister in the Karzai government turned anti-corruption crusader, and if he has his way, the future president of Afghanistan.
He rises, acknowledges Canada’s commitment to Afghanistan’s security, and then immediately delivers his message: “Your young Canadian soldiers give their blood for Afghanistan ... but there is no reconstruction, only corruption. Canadian development money should be used for big projects, not for buying private luxury houses for government officials and luxury cars with television sets in them.”
Bashardost certainly understands the extent of corruption in Afghanistan better than most and speaks out against it publicly more than anyone. After studying in France and obtaining a PhD in international affairs, Bashardost returned to his native Afghanistan following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
As a strong proponent for human rights for all Afghans, President Hamid Karzai appointed Bashardost as his minister of planning in 2004. In this capacity, he undertook a study of the effectiveness of the foreign and Afghan NGOs operating in the country. At that time there were approximately 2,300 agencies registered, employing nearly 52,000 people throughout Afghanistan.
“I recommended to close down over 1,900 of those NGOs that were in operation because they were not actually providing aid to the people,” he says. “People were spending $10,000 a month to rent themselves a massive house and hiring their families at exorbitant salaries–and no one was benefiting from their work.”
When President Karzai refused to act upon Bashardost’s recommendation to shut down the ineffective NGOs, he quit the cabinet and was eventually elected as an independent member of parliament.
Although he would have been guaranteed a seat if he chose to run in his home province of Ghazni, as an ethnic Hazara, Bashardost wanted to secure a national mandate of anti-corruption by running in the capital of Kabul. Buoyed by his success, he now believes that the people of Afghanistan are prepared to set aside their past differences and unite behind him to eliminate corruption. He is registered as a presidential candidate to run against Karzai and he vows that, if elected, he will end the war between the government forces and the insurgents.
“The Taliban are not the problem. It is the corrupt mujahedeen warlords who have been returned to power in the form of the Karzai administration,” says Bashardost. “My first priority after I’m elected will be to put the war criminals on trial and to replace all the corrupt governors with responsible, capable people.”
One of the key messages that Bashardost keeps repeating is that the foreign aid being pumped into Afghanistan is more than sufficient to rebuild the country.
“To date, more than $60 billion US has been provided in aid to this country, which is more than ten times the pre-2001 annual GDP,” he says. “But most of that money has ended up heading back out of Afghanistan rather than into the hands of Afghans.”
One of the reasons for this is that most of the foreign aid-funded reconstruction projects are contracted out to foreign companies. Afghan construction firms end up providing labourers as sub-contractors, but the majority of the highly paid specialists and material are imported and therefore the money does not remain in Afghanistan. By eliminating the government corruption and maximizing the aid money already allocated to Afghanistan, Bashardost intends to then eliminate the rampant illegal drug trade.
When asked just how exactly he intends to eradicate Afghanistan of its warlords, corrupt politicians and druglords when he possesses no private army of his own, Bashardost simply shrugs his shoulders and says, “It will be the people’s will.”
After excusing himself from the interview, he steps through the tent flap and drives off in a battered little old car. It is hard not to admire the fact that this solitary man with virtually no means actually believes he can achieve his goal.