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This Former Johns Hopkins Professor Could Be Afghanistan’s Next President

And his running mate is a brutal warlord


Ashraf Ghani is an impatient man.

“I have a strange—because there’s no other way probably of describing it—uh, temper,” he says. “I’m a very difficult taskmaster. I don’t wait.”

That’s not so surprising when you consider he was educated, started a family, and worked most of his adult life in America. But he’s also Afghan, raised in Kabul, and now one of eight presidential candidates in a country not known for punctuality.

It’s one way the former U.S. citizen—he renounced his citizenship in 2009 during his first run for the Afghan presidency—is still defined by America, and it’s one reason he’s known as a prickly personality. “He has an incredible reputation of having really angered every cabinet member he ever worked with,” says Ronald E. Neumann, America’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-2007. But perhaps that’s what it takes. Because Ghani, Neumann adds, “is enormously organized. Any time you go see Ashraf he has ideas and plans and the plans are developed, and they’re developed down to six levels of specificity.”

That specificity reveals itself even in the way Ashraf Ghani speaks about himself, like a man reading from a ledger of his own life with all the dates listed neatly in the margins. He doesn’t have to pause and add things up in his head—all the details are at the ready, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to remember, five decades later and without a moment’s hesitation, that “I left on August 26, 1977” or that “in the last four years I have travelled 140 times to the provinces and there isn’t one province I haven’t been to at least twice.” “An encyclopedic memory,” is how Clare Lockhart, who launched the Institute for State Effectiveness and coauthored Fixing Failed States with Ghani, describes it. “An ability to recall events with absolute precision.”

This quality has served Ghani well in Afghanistan; few people have accomplished as much since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 as he has. His resume reads like a list of Afghanistan’s development highlights over the last 13 years: As an advisor to the United Nations’ envoy to Afghanistan, he helped implement the Bonn Agreement, which led to a democratic government in Afghanistan.

As advisor to Hamid Karzai, he organized the Loya Jirga that approved the constitution and elected Karzai. He helped write the country’s National Development Framework while still serving as advisor, and then as director of the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority (AACA). As finance minister, he launched a new currency, centralized the revenue, and spurred the development of a cellular telephone system, where before there had been none, by instituting a transparent spectrum licensing system. As chancellor of Kabul University, he institutionalized shared governance, so that university leadership was technically accountable to students. In short, wherever Ashraf Ghani went, things got done.

It’s believable, then, when he says, “For the last 44 years of my life, my rhythm has been at least fourteen hours a day.” But if Ghani manages his days like he’s on borrowed time, it’s because, in his telling, his entire life since leaving Afghanistan before the communist coup of 1978 was one long preparation for his return—if not for the very task he seeks, leading Afghanistan just as international forces depart.

Ghani, who had studied at the American University of Beirut, got out of Afghanistan just months before the 1978 April revolution—during which, he says, the communist party put many of his family members in solitary confinement, and tortured and killed many of his former students. He then lived abroad until shortly after September 11. He was working for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., when the city went into lockdown and everybody at the bank went home. Ghani stayed in the office. “My house was in Bethesda and I couldn’t walk, it was eight miles and there was no way to get a taxi and the subway had stopped. So I sat down and said, ‘Now it’s time to reengage.’”

Three months later, he was in Afghanistan. He held a series of posts in the new government, and in 2009 made his first bid for elected office, running for president. It was a disappointing turn, Ghani barely registered, finishing a distant fourth with 3 percent of the vote. But in his telling, his 2009 performance has no bearing on his prospects today. Back then, “this country was not terrified,” he says. “It largely assumed continuity—it assumed that there was going to be a large-scale international engagement. It didn’t worry.

“Now, people are profoundly different.”

“You know what they want from me?” Ghani is speaking to me after the last of his guests—a parliamentarian from Kandahar and a tribal elder who fought in the jihad—have left for the night. We’re sitting in a large room set up for both Western-style meetings (tables and chairs) and traditional Afghan ones (carpets and pillows), and Ghani briefly allows himself one western indulgence: He puts his feet up on the table. It’s an understandable reflex, especially for a former professor. It’s after 11 p.m., after all, and he’s been going all day. But here it’s an insult to show the bottom of your feet, and he makes a point of asking my permission, apologizing, then he overrules himself and puts his feet back down.

“It’s transformation,” he says. “They want order. They want a functioning system. And they say, ‘This is what you know, and this is where you stand.’” He opens his palm towards me. “This hand is free of blood, and this hand is free from the stain of corruption. And that’s what gets them excited, it’s ideas.”

Of course, his clean hands and his detailed ideas are functions of where he’s been—he was not in Afghanistan during the worst years of the anti-Soviet Jihad, the civil war, or the Taliban government. He was in the West, attached to some of the finest academic and development institutions in the world. When he left Kabul in 1977, it was for a Masters in Anthropology at Columbia University. He stayed on for his Ph.D., then taught at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. In 1985, he took a sabbatical to do field work on seminaries in Pakistan, which meant he was researching madrassas just as, inside them, young men were beginning to alloy into a group of Islamists who would, a few years later, fan out into Afghanistan and try to purify it of injustice and apostasy, calling themselves “Knowledge Seekers”—the Taliban. He moved from academia to development, and dealt with resettlement across South and East Asia while he was an official at the World Bank.

It’s an impressive resume, but in Afghanistan today, there’s often resentment toward people who lived comfortably in the West during Afghanistan’s most violent years. “I don’t have a sense of guilt,” Ghani says, “because I used those 24 years to learn things that this country needed. Had I carried a gun, I would have been another gun-toting person, you know there was no shortage of fighters, so it’s not as though we had few volunteers. We lost a million and a half people, and we kept going it. But I thought my task was to be ready for the day the country had an opportunity to reconstruct.”

Meanwhile, whoever’s elected next month will have to strike a delicate balance between allegiance to, and independence from, the international community that Ghani knows so well—especially America. As the U.S.-led combat mission ends, keeping America involved without showing weakness at home is going to be a difficult balance, especially for Ashraf Ghani. But he’s been unafraid to embrace his ties to the West. “You know, America has profoundly shaped me, and I have two American children and unbelievably rich friendships so it will always be a source of joy and good memories. But here,” he says, gesturing to the room, or perhaps the country around him, “it’s what moves me.”

But if for most of Ghani’s adult life he has enjoyed respect from the West, he put that in jeopardy last October when he made a decision that baffled most of his allies there.

The Afghanistan election’s Game Change moment came when Ghani chose as his running mate one of the most brutal warlords, with one of the worst records of human rights abuses in all of Afghanistan.

General Abdul Rashid Dostum tends to slip under the American radar because recently his interests have aligned with ours; his abuses have tended to be against people the U.S. considers enemies, most recently, the Taliban. But he’s been responsible for massacres of prisoners, accused repeatedly of using mass rape as a weapon of war, and has a long list of other war crimes on his resume. And though some of the stories about Dostum are surely myths—it’s said that he eats twelve chickens and two quarts of vodka in every sitting—the war crimes allegations are serious, repeated, and furnished by multiple international organizations.

When news of the Dostum choice came out, casual Afghanistan observers in America who know and respect Ghani were confused; people I spoke to on the streets of Kabul were disappointed, and Ghani seemed to go from a new kind of candidate whose intelligence and commitment were unquestioned to a man on top of a ticket that didn’t look that much different from the other ones.

There was, however, one obvious reason for Ghani to bring the warlord on board: Dostum is a figurehead for the Uzbeks, a small minority in Afghanistan, but one that tends to vote as a bloc. Including Dostum effectively guaranteed about a million votes.

But that couldn’t possibly be all of it. In the constantly shifting orrery of Afghan politics, a man like Dostum who can win you a million votes with one group can cost you at least as many others. He has a loyal following, but no shortage of enemies. And on the face of it, making this kind of alliance just for votes seemed awfully mercenary for a man like Ghani.

“We develop sentiments that we are only going to work with people like us,” Ghani told me. “But you don’t build up a nation by working with people like you. You overcome a history of conflict by reaching out to people very much unlike you.” And he doesn’t try to whitewash his running mate’s image. “If we’re going to have peace, we’re going to have on our team people who understand war.”

Does bringing Dostum on board risk conferring legitimacy on the violent manner in which Dostum, and warlords like him, have won and clung to power here? “No,” Ghani says, “because he’s not going to do the past; he’s not interested in the past. General Dostum is not coming with a militia to take over Kabul. He’s coming in a suit. To be vice president. Based on a democratic election. And that is the profound change.”

This is what separates Ghani in 2009 from Ghani today. The talented technocrat may now have mastered politics. He’s aware of the notion, which has proven resilient despite his accomplishments, that Ghani is a just an academic, suited for research in a quiet university library but not the rough and tumble world of Afghan politics. And he’s aware of what he needs to do to overcome that. “I can sit in my study and produce the best plans ever conceived for Afghanistan,” he says. “Its problem is going to be that it’s never going to be implemented. If I want to enter into political arena, I have to be able to win.”

It looks like he can. After the Dostum announcement, Ghani started climbing in the polls. An Afghan TV station’s survey two weeks later gave him just under 14 percent of the vote; then, at the end of December, after the news had sunk in and Ghani further explained his choice, a Democracy International poll gave him 25 percent. Days later he was in the lead and polling so well that the U.S. cancelled a contract to do more surveys because perception was gaining traction that it was rigging the polls for its favorites.

Polling is a young and inexact science in Afghanistan. Still, that Ghani has emerged as a frontrunner raises another series of questions: If he wins, he will be taking over from a man who survived multiple assassination attempts and saw many friends and relatives killed while he was in office. Ghani will be placing himself and his family squarely in harm’s way, and he’s potentially even more vulnerable than Karzai, because his associations with the West make him a more attractive target, and he won’t have the massive international troop presence providing security. He’s not in denial about that fact, but has a plan: “If I project anxiety,” he says, “the nation will feel terrified. I have to believe that we can conquer and overcome the crisis. And I have to convey that in words, deeds, and action. Otherwise why should they believe? Part of the crisis is psychological. And all crises that have huge psychological components require leadership that says, ‘Don’t fear.’

“You know, Roosevelt’s legacy was overcoming fear, and it was a marginal line, but it became the headline and it defined the legacy of the New Deal. In the midst of that destructive series of events, forces, he found a pattern. And that’s the task of leadership: To be able to master calm judgment while living the sentiment, drawing on it, not giving in to it.”

Reporting for this piece was made possible by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.