Afghan poll hopeful Ghani wants Pakistan 'special relationship'

Afghan presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani says rapprochement with the Taliban's old backers Pakistan, along the lines of France and Germany after World War II, is key to ending instability in his conflict-torn nation. The race to succeed President Hamid Karzai has narrowed to a two-way fight between Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah following the release of early partial results on Sunday. Former World Bank academic Ghani told AFP he wants to end years of suspicion and mistrust with Pakistan and forge a "special relationship" with the nuclear power. There is lasting bitterness among many Afghans at Pakistani interference in their country -- Islamabad historically supported groups in Afghanistan it regarded as favourable to its ends, including the Taliban during their 1996-2001 rule. In an interview with AFP, Ghani said Afghanistan's eastern neighbour had changed and a more harmonious relationship was critical for the region and the world. "Pakistan is a different country. In the past, there was a distinction made between 'Good Taliban' and 'Bad Taliban'," he said, referring to Islamabad's one-time backing of the militants in Afghanistan while clamping down on fighters at home. But Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, elected in May 2013, "sees extremism as the fundamental challenge", Ghani said. "The goal is a special relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan that would resemble that of France and Germany after World War II," he added. - Fresh start? - As well as backing the Taliban regime before its fall in a US-led invasion in 2001, Pakistan is still believed to be sheltering the group's leadership. Both countries frequently accuse each other of supporting cross-border terror attacks, and Ghani's position would mark a departure from their presently sour ties. It sounds like an ambitious task but Afghanistan has already proven pessimists wrong, he said. With NATO winding down combat operations, security for the April 5 vote was in the hands of Afghan forces and the relative peace of polling day demonstrated they were up to the task of tackling the Taliban, he said. "When we began the (security) transition, every foreign commentator and most of the domestic actors were saying this was madness and that we were going to collapse," Ghani said. "No, our security forces fully exonerated themselves. The nation and the security forces are now aligned." - Close race - Abdullah is seen as a seasoned political operator with an easy common touch. He finished runner up in Karzai's fraud-wracked 2009 re-election. Ghani, who served as finance minister under Karzai, is renowned as an intellectual and counts reforming Afghanistan's currency and setting up the succesful telecoms sector as evidence of his ability to devise and implement big ideas. Trailing by only 21,751 votes out of the 506,843 votes counted so far, Ghani remains upbeat about his chances for emerging victor, stressing the people voted for a doer and not rhetoric. To outside observers, there appears to be little to differentiate between Ghani and Abdullah's policies. Both want to sign a security pact with the United States that Karzai stalled on, reconciliation with the Taliban and constitutional changes that will create more leadership positions. Ghani says the reason they sound similar is that he came up with the ideas. "I'm delighted that we sound similar because a lot of the ideas have been mine since 2009," he said. "The acceptance of the discourse is a very big step towards coming together." The tone of reconciliation, echoing remarks Abdullah made on Sunday about Karzai, marks a significant change from the bitterness and acrimony that accompanied the 2009 election. There have been allegations of fraud this time around but both leading candidates have said they will respect the complaints process. A disputed, fractious result would risk weakening the new president as he faces taking on the Taliban without NATO combat help and strengthening the economy as foreign aid money dwindles. Ghani left his homeland in 1977 to become a professor at leading US universities and later joined the World Bank, finally returning in 2001 following the Taliban's fall. He came second in a "world thinkers" poll by Prospect magazine last year but he stresses his man-of-the-people credentials, saying he has spent years travelling to every province and connecting with the people. "The period of wonkishness is over. I arrived in this country having been away 24 years. And within six months I was moving the policy of this country," he said.