Ashraf Ghani’s Struggle

The iconoclastic anthropologist is taking over Afghanistan’s presidency with high hopes and big ideas.

Photos: Andrew Quilty
Photos: Andrew Quilty

KABUL — Ashraf Ghani has this shtick that he performs for journalists who visit him: He opens his palms to you and says: “This hand is clean from corruption. The other is clean from blood.”

In Afghanistan, that is saying something. However, Ghani’s reputation is no longer squeaky clean. A three-month-long election crisis sparked by widespread fraud allegations ended on Sept. 21; Ghani was officially sworn in as president on Sept. 29. But the issues that prompted the grueling gridlock in the first place have not been entirely resolved.

An extensive vote audit declared Ghani the winner, and he and his rival Abdullah Abdullah signed a deal to form a “national unity government,” in which Abdullah (or a nominee of his choice) becomes “CEO,” a position akin to an executive prime minister. The deal was midwifed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Kabul twice and reportedly called the two candidates a total of 27 times. However, top European and American officials have said the audit wasn’t thorough enough, leaving original suspicions of mass fraud alive to sour Ghani’s early taste of victory when he is inaugurated in Kabul today.

Foreign Policy met Ghani at his house in Kabul in early August while he was still deeply entangled in the election crisis. Dressed in his trademark crisp white shalwar kameez with black vest, his fingers fidgeting a string of amber prayer beads, Ghani spoke with the air of a lecturer. People often come out of meetings with him with the sense that “he thinks he is the smartest guy in the room,” as one Western diplomat puts it.

“I have been given this enormous gift and I want to put it into service of the people who deserve a break from this viciousness. Politics to me is not a business, it’s not a profession, it’s not a profitable enterprise,” Ghani said. “It is a calling.”

After a bruising power struggle, the coalition government looks wobbly from the outset. The challenges facing the government are monstrous and Ghani doesn’t need the bickering to continue in the months ahead. His first year in office will be defined by the difficult transition from heavy U.S. military presence to full Afghan authority and responsibility for security. He would know — having headed from 2011 to 2013 the commission responsible for overseeing the transition — that this process is not going too well.

One hurdle is the weak condition of the Afghan state that Ghani inherits from outgoing President Hamid Karzai. By ruling through personal alliances at the cost of state institutions, Karzai stayed in power — and alive — for 13 years. But he also boosted power brokers in the provinces who will fight Ghani if he threatens their economic and political interests. And there is a good chance the new president will. “The political class and other parts of society must accept to regard institution-building as the only guarantee for saving us from individualistic thinking and conduct in the running of the state,” Ghani wrote in his campaign manifesto.

As co-founder of the Washington-based Institute for State Effectiveness, and co-author of the 2009 book Fixing Failed States, Ghani has discussed in detail how to reconstruct post-conflict societies. While he has much praise for his predecessor, Ghani blames Karzai for allowing corruption to bloom. “The corruption is a failure. Not building institutions is a failure. So there’s a balance sheet. There are negative things but there are also positive.” And while Karzai is not personally corrupt, Ghani says, his family is another matter.

“How the wider institutions have been shaped, how family members have behaved and others, that’s part of a wider tolerance of corruption that is taking place in society,” said Ghani. “And you need to ask [Karzai] as why he has not been more assertive on some of these issues.”

Corruption is only one of the ills plaguing the Afghan economy. Dependent on foreign imports and with little domestic industry to speak of, the economy was left close to comatose as financial activity stopped during the recent election impasse. According to the country’s finance minister, the stuck ballot cost Afghanistan $5 billion in lost revenue and investment, and threatened to leave the government unable to pay salaries for civil servants.

Making Afghanistan self-sufficient is at the top of Ghani’s agenda. “We want to generate one of the biggest construction industries in the region,” he said. “We have enough marble to last the region for 100 years, but we are importing marble from neighboring countries.”

Many of Afghanistan’s problems come down to poor infrastructure. “Urban and rural Afghanistan are totally disconnected. Go to the market. 70 percent of the food is foreign imported, while 40-60 percent of our food rots between the field and the market because we don’t have the system,” Ghani noted.

Having spent more than a decade as an adviser to the World Bank, Ghani speaks the language of technocrats. (“Transformation and Continuity” sounds more like a working paper than a campaign slogan, for example.) He rolls out his plans meticulously, up to eight bullet points at a time, as if lifting them directly from the 309-page election manifesto

And he looks to history to find suitable analogies for what he plans to do in Afghanistan. By asserting state control over the economy, he says, Afghanistan can grow like South Korea did in the 1970s and 1980s. To fight extremism, Afghanistan needs closer cooperation with Pakistan, molded on the European Coal and Steel Community, the post-World War II precursor to the European Union. 

In his two years as finance minister under Karzai, from 2002-2004, Ghani built the ministry from scratch, introduced a new currency, initiated the development of a new cell phone system, and created a widely successful large-scale anti-poverty program. This year, he had far more detailed plans than any of the seven opponents who ran against him in the first round.

In fact, his plans may prove overambitious, particularly after the lengthy election. As Kate Clark, a Kabul-based analyst points out, “Things have changed since he drew up his plans.” With Abdullah on board, Ghani has a less free hand in appointing officials. And the election crisis has drained the patience and trust of the people. “[Ghani] doesn’t come into office on a wave of popular support. And to make reforms, especially difficult ones, you need support,” Clark says. 

Most of his reforms will require a fight against provincial power brokers as well as a rigid bureaucracy, but Ghani is no stranger to using a bit of managerial muscle. He is known for having a hot temper and little patience for disagreement. 

“When he was finance minister, he could unite the whole cabinet against him,” says Scott Guggenheim, a colleague and friend of Ghani since the 1970s. “He hasn’t been a team manager, but that’s changing.” Indeed, Ghani has a reputation for throwing angry fits over minor details.

“He did have a reputation for being ferocious as finance minister,” says Clare Lockhart, who co-wrote Ghani’s book on failed states. “In part, I think that was deliberate, because how else was he going to clean up when he didn’t have tanks?” 

International partners have also been at the receiving end of Ghani’s angry outbursts. In 2011, when he headed the transition commission, Ghani met with a group of a dozen or so international NGOs. A country coordinator for one of the NGOs recalls how, before the meeting, Ghani told all the attendants to turn off their cell phones. When one person’s phone rang anyway, Ghani exploded.

“He didn’t just start shouting, he completely lost it,” says the NGO worker who asked not to be named. “I can’t imagine a worse person to work for.”

Still, temper aside, Ghani and his new CEO are expected to be better friends of the West than Karzai — who in his last years in power turned increasingly conspiratorial and obstinate.

“[Ghani and Abdullah] will both be more positive and moderate in their expectations of what the West can deliver,” says Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin, the European Union’s special representative to Afghanistan. “We are going to see a significant shift from Karzai who has been a very difficult partner for the West for a long time.”

Ghani has promised to sign security agreements allowing U.S. and NATO troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, something Karzai refused to do for over a year. But Ghani also has strong criticism for the West, particularly when it comes to international aid, which he says is designed to benefit foreign contractors rather than Afghan companies. By offering high salaries, foreign firms distort the job market and make it difficult for the Afghan government to hire skilled domestic labor, he says. 

Having grown up in Afghanistan’s Logar province, Ghani, who is 65, spent most of his adult life abroad. He got his first degree at 24 from the American University of Beirut, where he also met his wife, Rula, a Christian Lebanese-American. He left Afghanistan months before the 1978 revolution, in which many of his family members were imprisoned. Ghani continued to watch from exile as Afghanistan went through one miserable period of war and struggle after another.

While Ghani says he spent his years abroad “preparing meticulously for reconstruction of this country,” some Afghans feel he got off easy by not participating in the suffering of his compatriots. He hasn’t, as many Afghans put it, “felt the pain of the people.”

“Eighteen months of my father being in solitary confinement [in 1978] is not feeling the pain of the people? The first village that got bombarded was mine. There’s no pain?” Ghani said in the interview, slightly agitated. His father served in various capacities under the monarchy. “10 million of us became refugees. Are they going to judge every person?”

After arriving in the United States in the late 1970s, Ghani earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University, then took a professorship at Johns Hopkins. He gained American citizenship in 1990. (He later renounced it to run for president in 2009). While he was working at the World Bank, there were brief — if not entirely convincing — suggestions that Ghani could replace Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations in 2006. In 2013, Prospect magazine named him the second most important world thinker, ranking him higher than the likes of Paul Krugman and Slavoj Zizek.

But the foreign endorsements took time to pay off in Afghanistan. In his first presidential bid in 2009 Ghani pulled in less than 3 percent of the vote. Since then he realized, says Guggenheim, “that he needed someone who could bring in people along patronage and ethnic lines. Politics are dirty.”

That dirty someone was General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an warlord from Afghistan’s ethnic Uzbek community who is accused of a series of brutal war crimes during the war against the Taliban. In 2009, Ghani called Dostum a “known killer.”

Five years later, Ghani chose Dostum as his running mate. He was promptly criticized for hypocrisy. Many Afghans, particularly among Ghani’s Pashtun constituents, don’t want to see Dostum as vice president and potential stand-in for Ghani, who has previously had a brush with cancer which forced him to have part of his stomach removed in 1996.

Dostum commands around a million votes from the country’s Uzbek community — approximately the same as Ghani’s election win over Abdullah. Ghani, though, denies that such cynical calculus was behind his choice of vice president. He compares politics to bricolage, where an artist creates a work from whatever material is at hand.

“This is what I’m going to do with the country, we need to put the existing material to work,” he said. “This country has suffered from a syndrome of exclusion. Politics is not a love marriage…. What I have shown during this campaign is a harbinger of how I am going to build peace. Consensus means bringing people together who are in the beginning different.”

Nevertheless, some fear that Ghani may not be able to unite Afghanistan. Apart from Dostum’s base, several prominent Pashtun nationalists have rallied behind Ghani. Some in Afghanistan, particularly Tajiks, the country’s second largest ethnic group, worry that the new president will rule along ethnic lines and further divide the country.

Fawzia Koofi, Afghanistan’s perhaps most prominent female MP who also worked on Abdullah’s campaign, is not in doubt: “Yes, he might bring reforms,” she says. “But he will divide the country.”

Ghani seems unfazed by the criticism, and insists he will only appoint people based on merit. The elections have only made his most important issue all the more pressing: to convince the Afghan people to trust its politicians. “The key is that politics takes the place of violence,” said Ghani. “That ballots are going to be much more important each year than bullets.”

Sune Engel Rasmussen is the Guardian’s correspondent in Afghanistan. Twitter: @SuneEngel

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