On July 22, a foreigner in a blue button-down shirt and black shades entered an audit center in Kabul where U.N. and international observers were overseeing a massive effort to investigate all 8 million votes cast in June’s presidential runoff election between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.
According to Sadat Naderi, head of Ghani’s observer team, the foreigner interrupted a conversation he was having with a U.N. official to say that the check marks on a number of ballots in favor of Ghani looked identical and should be considered invalid.
The warehouse where the audit was taking place was swarming with foreigners, but this person wasn’t wearing any official badge. When Naderi asked to see some identification, the foreigner said he didn’t have any.
"We said, my goodness, how did you get in here? How do you have the guts to interfere with such an important matter and a very sensitive process?" Naderi recalled.
At that point, confusion broke out. Worried that somehow the process was being tampered with, the Ghani campaign suspended its participation, and the police and members of the media were called. The audit was put on hold while rumors began spreading about the situation.
"We really don’t know how many days he was there, and we really don’t know how many other people were there," Naderi said.
Except for speculation on Twitter, his identity was never revealed.
The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan confirmed to Foreign Policy that the man’s name is Tim Shirk, an American and a 2009 graduate of George Mason University’s law school who most recently worked as a private-sector advisor to former Malawian President Joyce Banda. Earlier in his career, Shirk was an advisor to the minister of justice in Rwanda.
So what brought him to Kabul? Turns out, he traveled there at the suggestion of his boss, Joe Ritchie, a legendary Chicago options and commodities trader and a longtime player in Afghan politics who’s now quietly backing the Abdullah campaign.
While Ritchie says the July 22 incident was "a tempest in a teapot," it revealed the role that outside advisors are playing in Afghan politics today. It also showed how much is at stake in this audit, where the two candidates’ teams are fighting over every vote.
It may come as no surprise to learn that candidates in foreign elections have hired U.S. political consultants for advice. In 2009, Democratic strategist James Carville drew a lot of attention when he signed on with Ghani as he campaigned against incumbent Hamid Karzai and Abdullah. This year, Ghani once again hired a number of Washington-based consultants, including the firms Roberti+White and Sanitas International.
Before helping with media relations for Ghani, Sanitas had a contract with Ritchie to help raise Abdullah’s profile and to promote free and fair elections in Afghanistan.
"Sanitas never worked for Abdullah Abdullah or his campaign directly, but were [registered with the U.S. Justice Department] as such because of Ritchie’s involvement as a key advisor and supporter," said Christopher Harvin, a partner at Sanitas. "Shortly after our original work ended in June, Dr. Ghani’s campaign directly hired the Sanitas team to support strategic messaging, outreach, and direct media engagement."
While both campaigns have formal and informal advisors, Ritchie’s involvement is unique. He is the first to admit that he’s not being paid and has signed no contract with the Abdullah team.
"I’m a friend of Afghanistan that would love to see Afghanistan with a government that the population feels is legitimate and represents them. It’s that simple," he told FP.
But to his critics, Ritchie’s involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere is anything but simple.
He is president and founder of Fox River Financial Resources, which, according to Ritchie’s bio, "deals in hedge funds, venture capital funds, direct equity investments, real estate, and proprietary trading strategies."
Beyond Afghanistan, Ritchie has also advised Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who named him the founding CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. Ritchie has also worked on behalf of Banda in Malawi and was deeply involved in the May election, which she lost. His larger-than-life biography includes businesses in Russia and Japan, not to mention his extracurricular activities: breaking speed records for turboprop aircraft and helping friends with things like circumnavigating the globe in a balloon.
But Ritchie’s involvement in Afghanistan predates these other pursuits. He spent part of his childhood living there, an experience that has kept his family closely tied to the country. His father, a civil engineer and a minister, helped build a hospital in Herat and was buried in Kabul when he died in 1978, according to a 2001 profile by the Washington Post.
Ritchie’s brother, James, has also remained very active in the country. He is the founder of the International Foundation of Hope, a Colorado-based nonprofit for Afghanistan that focuses on "economic development, community empowerment, and education," according to its website.
When it comes to Afghanistan, though, the Ritchie brothers are best known for having financed the famous Afghan opposition commander Abdul Haq and his unsuccessful effort to create a popular uprising against the Taliban in the month following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Haq was captured and executed by Taliban forces in October 2001, despite an effort by the Ritchies to have the CIA intervene and save him.
Some people still blame the Ritchies for Haq’s death.
Back then, the Ritchies "exercised a high degree of influence, despite their lack of knowledge and good sense," a former U.S. government official said.
There’s a temptation to view the Ritchie brothers as controlling and scheming businessmen working behind the scenes, a former Defense official said, but he warned against buying into conspiracy theories.
"I don’t think they play as big a role as some people think," the official said, adding that they are a factor in Afghan politics but not a dominant one.
As for what motivates their involvement, it’s a mixture of business and personal interests, including what the former Defense official described as a "messianic impulse."
"They are often doing good things, but nobody seems to know exactly why they are doing them…. They’re kind of difficult to read," Philip Smith, a Washington lobbyist, told the Washington Post in 2001.
After Haq’s death, Joe Ritchie pulled back from the Afghan political scene but stayed in touch with Haq’s brother, Nasrullah Baryalai Arsalai, who, according to Ritchie, "picked up the flag" of his slain brother, promoting a decentralized political system for Afghanistan "of local leaders, tribal elders, being at the root of the power structure."
"This is the only way Afghanistan has ever worked," Ritchie said.
After years away, Ritchie began to get involved again when Baryalai came to him and said Abdullah was promoting a similar platform.
Today, Ritchie says he’s far less involved than he was with Haq. For the Abdullah campaign, he may brainstorm with the team and introduce them to people in Washington, "but I’m not under any kind of contract," he said, adding, "I don’t have any business or potential business in Afghanistan."
Despite Ritchie’s past involvement in Afghan affairs, his current participation remains widely unknown. This is most likely on purpose.
"There is widespread suspicion of any involvement by foreigners in Afghan politics," said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul.
This is especially true right now when Afghanistan is in such a volatile political position.
The presidential election’s first round was in April, when Abdullah won the most votes but not more than 50 percent, the threshold necessary for an outright victory.
A runoff election between Abdullah and Ghani, a former finance minister, took place June 14. This time Ghani emerged the winner but soon allegations of fraud marred his victory.
Turnout for the runoff election was much higher than expected and Abdullah’s team charged that as many as 2 million of the 8.1 million ballots cast could be fraudulent.
Without a declared winner, the political crisis grew worse in early July, when Abdullah’s supporters threatened to form a parallel government and provoke civil unrest if Ghani became president. Secretary of State John Kerry intervened, brokering an audit and an agreement that no matter who won, a unity government would be formed.
Now, Afghanistan and the United States are holding their breath to see whether this recount could bring the country back from the brink of civil war. Already, it’s taking longer than either party or the United States would like.
The audit has been halted several times, including after Shirk’s July 22 interruption.
According to a Facebook post that has since been removed, Shirk arrived at the Kabul airport on July 14. He had been working in Malawi for Banda, who was defeated in May in what’s been called "a bitter and chaotic election."
Shirk’s trip was half-personal, half-business, according to Ritchie. "He has friends in Kabul and so I said: ‘Why don’t you go visit your friends in Kabul and see what’s going on there?’… Of course, since my No. 1 friend in Kabul is Baryalai, I introduced them."
Shirk did some informal advising for the Abdullah team, Ritchie said, and on July 22, they took him to the audit center to get him a badge as a campaign representative.
While waiting for the badge, Shirk had a look around, leading to the confrontation, Ritchie said.
"This happened to be the day they started to look at some of the boxes from places like Paktia and Paktika, so everyone was uptight and tense," Ritchie said. "It was a perfect day to make a big thing of it because they needed something diversionary."
Whether Shirk meant to or not, his presence deepened the suspicion between the two campaigns. He has since left Afghanistan and is working again for Banda in Washington, D.C. (Shirk did not respond to a request for comment.)
"The disruption was unhelpful because of the delays, and it’s something that undermined the trust between the two candidates, who are fighting over every ballot now," said Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Smith knew the details of the July 22 incident but had not heard Shirk’s name before or his connection to the Abdullah campaign.
He said he’s worried that the audit is taking too long and that the country needs a political resolution as soon as possible.
For Jed Ober, director of programs at Democracy International, the July 22 disruption highlighted the problems inherent in the flawed audit process.
Before it started, the two sides "hadn’t agreed on invalidation criteria; they hadn’t agreed on jurisdiction as to who was going to make decisions, so once they actually got to a ballot box that had clear signs of fraud in one candidate’s favor, this was bound to happen," Ober said.
Last week seemed like a breakthrough, though, after Kerry once again flew to Kabul to quash the rising tension. He was able to convince both sides to accept the results of the audit and urged them not to get bogged down fighting over every ballot.
"We are committed to the audit process which is underway, and we will be cooperative in pursuing and pushing it in order to complete it," Abdullah said on Aug. 8, after the agreement was reached.
Following Abdullah’s comments, Ghani said: "The country cannot take uncertainty; uncertainty is a threat. Our action today and in following weeks should create an environment of certainty and trust. We trust each other."