World & Nation

New Afghan leader Ashraf Ghani’s transformation and winning strategy

Afghan President-elect Ashraf Ghani
Afghan President-elect Ashraf Ghani at the Independent Electoral Commission in Kabul on Sept. 26. Ghani is to be sworn in on Sept. 29.
(Noorullah Shirzada / AFP/Getty Images)

With his Ivy League pedigree and professorial air, Ashraf Ghani long seemed ill-suited to the rough-and-tumble politics of his native Afghanistan, especially after a quarter-century as an academic in the United States.

After a disastrous presidential run five years ago, Ghani remade himself into a candidate who could win. He selected as his running mate a notorious militia leader who guaranteed a key voting bloc. He swapped his business suits for traditional attire and began using his tribal last name.


Afghan president: An article in Section A on Sept. 29 about Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stated that he moved back to the United States after serving as Afghanistan’s finance minister from 2002 to 2004. Ghani remained a resident of Afghanistan while co-founding the Institute for State Effectiveness, a Washington-based think tank. —
The changes worked: Ghani was sworn in Monday as Afghanistan’s president, but he will need all his skills to lead the country into a post-American era. A divisive election, budget crisis and widening Taliban offensive all have underscored Afghanistan’s vulnerability as the U.S.-led military coalition withdraws and President Hamid Karzai — who managed to hold the country together through 13 tumultuous years — fades away.


Supporters of the 65-year-old Ghani, an anthropologist by training, say he’s uniquely qualified for the job, having co-written a book titled “Fixing Failed States.” Reforms he championed as Afghanistan’s finance minister in the early 2000s impressed donors, and his more recent job as head of the transition to Afghan-led security took him to each of the country’s 34 provinces to meet with Afghans of all stripes.

“He knows the technical elements, but he also knows how to make them work in a political context,” said Clare Lockhart, Ghani’s coauthor and founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness, a think tank that specializes in development and governance. “His technical agenda is rooted in a real understanding of the country.”

Born into an influential Pashtun nomad family from eastern Afghanistan, Ghani studied at the American University in Beirut — where he met his wife, Rula, a Lebanese Christian who now holds Afghan citizenship — and won a scholarship to Columbia University, eventually earning a doctorate.

He spent nearly all of Afghanistan’s turbulent 1980s and 1990s outside the country, in teaching posts at UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins and later as a senior official at the World Bank. He returned to Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban to help draft the Bonn agreement, which laid the groundwork for a new government.


From 2002 to 2004 he served as Karzai’s finance minister, winning praise for reforming the currency, helping to establish a booming cellphone network and creating one of Afghanistan’s most successful public programs: a rural development initiative that has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to far-flung districts.

He served briefly as chancellor of Kabul University before moving back to the United States to help Lockhart form the think tank, which has advised countries such as Nepal and Kosovo on political transitions. At one point he was considered on the short list to replace Kofi Annan as United Nations secretary-general.

But his international background did not impress his fellow Afghans, even after he gave up his U.S. passport to challenge Karzai for president in 2009. A dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that year described Ghani as “out of touch” and given to “high-minded, often wandering” explanations of his country’s ills.

“It’s a style unlikely to win Afghan voters, who are eager for solutions,” read the cable, which was obtained by WikiLeaks. He won less than 3% of the vote.

On the campaign trail this year, Ghani was noticeably mellower. Long known for giving didactic, multi-part answers to questions, he honed a simpler campaign message of citizenship and accountability. He added his tribal name, Ahmadzai, to more closely identify with Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group.

Crucially, he chose Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek leader who has been accused of atrocities during the civil war in the 1990s, as a vice presidential nominee, astounding many Afghans, particularly fellow Pashtuns. Years earlier, Ghani had called Dostum a “known killer.”

This year, he described him as “a charismatic leader” — one who political analysts said was worth about 1 million Uzbek votes.

Ghani finished well behind Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, in a first round of balloting in April, but advisors say his campaign was more sophisticated for the June runoff. His campaign workers reached out to local religious officials to help more women in rural areas cast ballots and used social media and text messaging to communicate with urban voters.


“I personally spoke to groups and groups of people telling them that an intellectual Ghani, not the warlords of our past, are the ones who will lead Afghanistan into a new era,” said Delawar, a campaigner in the northern province of Bamian who goes by a single name.

Preliminary results gave Ghani a decisive victory, prompting Abdullah to allege fraud and forcing the Obama administration to broker a compromise. After a lengthy, controversial recount led by the U.N., Ghani was named the winner last week and Abdullah said he would become chief executive, a new post, in a unity government.

Mohammad Qayoumi, a friend of Ghani’s for more than four decades, said the new Afghan leader would try to unite the country the way a technocrat knows: through policies to enhance Afghanistan’s economy and security.

“In the beginning, I hope people are going to give him the benefit of the doubt and look at the new government with an open mind,” said Qayoumi, the president of San Jose State University. “Based on what he is able to deliver, that is how he can keep the momentum going.”

Special correspondent Latifi reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

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