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Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan's Unlikely Politician

  • Abubakar Siddique

Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani speaks to supporters in Kabul in June.

Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani speaks to supporters in Kabul in June.

On the campaign trail, Ashraf Ghani swaps his suit and tie for a traditional tunic, loose trousers, and the white Afghan shawl that Afghan men commonly wrap around their chests.

The look is part of a carefully cultivated image transformation for the technocrat-turned-politician.

The former academic and World Bank executive, who was once in the running to head the UN and the World Bank, is introducing a new kind of politics in Afghanistan.

In a country ravaged by foreign invasions and internal friction, Ghani is running his presidential campaign on a broad reform agenda with a manifesto of a prosperous, peaceful future.

Ghani delivers a consistent message: "I want to give the people of Afghanistan a clear choice between a just order that I want to preside over, versus the corrupt order that the president and his entourage has turned Afghanistan into," he tells RFE/RL.

Ghani recalls a stern message from a young Afghan that led him to run for the country's highest office.

"Last year, I had a meeting with a number of young people and one of them said, 'On the day of judgment, I am going to take you by your lapel and shake you.' And I said, 'What have I done?'" he recalls.

"And he said: 'You are being silent. You are not challenging oppression when you see it all around you. You are not speaking and standing up as an alternative.' That statement is what has compelled me to run."

Working For Development

Ghani, 60, had a long and illustrious career as an academic at the University of California, Berkeley, and at John Hopkins University. In 1991, he headed to the World Bank as a lead anthropologist, where he grappled with complex development issues for the next decade.

But Afghanistan remained his constant passion, and he was a constant fixture at Afghanistan-related events in Washington.

A member of a prominent family within the large and influential Ahmedzai Pashtun tribe southeast of Kabul that historically provided Afghan kings with competent administrators and generals, Ghani stayed away from the deeply divisive and factionalized Afghan politics during the Soviet occupation and the subsequent civil war.

World Bank official and personal friend Scott Guggenheim has known Ghani for 25 years. Having worked for Ghani in Kabul, Guggenheim describes him as "an Afghan nationalist" whose decision to leave an international career for one in Afghan politics can be attributed to his wish to see his war-ravaged country succeed.

Campaign posters dot in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
"Ashraf could have stayed in the United Nations or the World Bank and could have moved pretty high up -- right," Guggenheim says. "But ever since I have known him, his eyes have been towards Afghanistan. He wants Afghanistan to succeed."

The international focus that fell upon Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led veteran Algerian diplomat and peacemaker Lakhdar Brahimi to return as a special UN envoy to Afghanistan for a second stint. Ghani was one of his key advisers in late 1990s, and later emerged as a central figure in the UN Strategy Group for Afghanistan.

This small group of expert advisers to the UN helped draft the UN Security Council resolutions and the Bonn accords that led the foundations of a new political system in Afghanistan.

Joining The Government

Calling this an "open moment," Ghani moved to Kabul as a UN official. But once there Brahimi encouraged him to enter the Afghan government and he soon became a key adviser to President Hamid Karzai and later served as his finance minister. In these roles, he become the point man for everything economy and reconstruction.

British lawyer and academic Clare Lockhart, who co-authored a book on stabilizing failed states with him, is a longtime friend of Ghani's. She describes Ghani as somebody "who combines intellectual curiosity and wisdom and vigor with immense moral commitment to public service."

And Lockhart is all praise for his dedication to work. "He worked nonstop round the clock except, of course, on the day of rest on Friday to respect the religious customs. But apart from that [he] would work 18 to 20 hours a day," she said of his days as Afghanistan's economic manger.

"And also within the ministry he increasingly built a team to which he could delegate their true legal function."

During his three years in the government and the cabinet, Ghani led the "reformist" camp of educated Afghans, who faced constant battles with warlords and militia commanders who suspected that efforts toward reform were intended to curtail their newfound powers.

Ghani introduced a new currency, a new banking system, imposed taxes on the rich, and engaged in complex negotiations with warlords to convince them to divert customs revenues from personal coffers to the national exchequer.

Ghani faces an uphill battle against incumbent Hamid Karzai.
Ghani prepared polished plans for national development, while reining in aid agencies that looked at Afghanistan as a gold rush with aid dollars pouring in. He stubbornly blocked proposals to incorporate factional militias into the new Afghan National Army and fought hard to promote transparency.

Rasul Amin, a former Kabul University professor and a former education minister in Karzai's first transitional administration, calls Ghani "a man of ideas." He now sees Ghani as able to form a competent administration "to work on the Afghan state and Afghanistan's nation building."

On The Campaign Trail

The critical challenge for Ghani, who is considered to be among the top three presidential contenders, is to rebrand his image to appeal to ordinary Afghans.

Ghani who claims to have spent 14 years researching and writing "the socioeconomic and political history of the last 500 years of this country," says the last year has been a unique learning experience.

"I have at least seen 100,000 Afghans across all 34 provinces in individual, small group discussions. I have listened to them and I reflect both their pain and frustrations but also their hopes and aspirations," he says of the campaign trail that took him to all corners of Afghanistan.

"I have a 10-year complete plan of action to address their needs and a 20-year framework that can provide the foundation for a prosperous stable Afghanistan."

Can James Carville do for Ghani what he did for Bill Clinton in 1992?
Ghani's campaign is advised by American political strategist James Carville, who played a key role in former U.S. President Bill Clinton's 1992 victory. But some Afghan observers remain skeptical that his modern campaign can work in Afghanistan's political scene, which centers around regional and tribal alliances headed by strongmen who are more often than not militia commanders.

Hajji Sayed Daud, a Kabul-based Afghan political commentator who has known Ghani since his days as a lecturer at Kabul University in mid-1970s, says that, like other Western-trained Afghan technocrats, Ghani has major vulnerabilities.

Daud says that they "lacked a political agenda because they did not have a political party or political past and were not related to political people. And they were counting on the international forces, the UN, and America. And even now they lack what you will call a political organization in their campaigns."

Ghani's supporters, however, see this as his main strength.

Ajmal Abidy is a 30-year-old Afghan professional who left his job with an international aid project to volunteer for Ghani's campaign. Having lived in exile during the Soviet occupation and Taliban rule in neighboring Pakistan, he sees in Ghani's leadership hope for his country and a clean break from corruption.

"Afghanistan needs a strong, determined, and serious leader who has the energy to extract this country from the current crisis," Abidy says, echoing a common sentiment among educated Afghans.

He says Afghans need a leader "who can sympathize with our country and its people and can do something to alleviate their suffering -- and Dr. Ashraf Ghani has all these qualities."

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Hamid Mohmand contributed to this piece
On The Campaign Trail

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah campaigned in early August at separate rallies in Kabul. Play

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