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Why Ashraf Ghani Succeeded on his Rocky Road to the Afghan Presidency

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was once thought to be alienated from the Afghan people and lost the 2009 election heavily. Now he's the country's new president.

by Ali M Latifi
Oct 1 2014, 8:48pm

Image via AP/Rahmat Gul

When he first ran for president of Afghanistan in 2009, one of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai's most notable ties was with James Carville, the US Democratic Party campaign strategist. Although Carville was more associated with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Afghans referred to him as "the man who helped Obama win."

Coming off the heels of the US president's 52.9 percent victory just months earlier, this partnership quickly earned the attention of international media at a time when incumbent Afghan president Hamid Karzai's foreign favor was beginning to fade.

At the time it seemed like an astute move that illustrated Ghani's ability to think outside the standard tropes of Afghan politics. But what seemed like a sure thing bombed. Ghani finished fourth in the August 2009 vote, securing around 3 percent of the vote.

For this year's election, Ghani made drastic changes. He left behind the high-minded D.C. strategist and instead embraced a volatile man accused of war crimes and rights abuses, the Uzbek ex-jihadi commander Abdul Rashid Dostum. Even before it was made official, rumors of that alliance sent shockwaves from Kabul to California.

On paper, Dostum was the antithesis to Carville and even Ghani. Ghani himself had previously referred to the military leader as a "known killer." But it seemed to work.

Combined with other efforts, alliances like the one Ghani made with people like Dostum — long-time power players, including several with questionable pasts — clicked with the Afghan people. Ghani took the oath of office on Monday after securing more than 55 percent of the vote in a highly-contested and controversial election.

Yet the road to the presidency has been particularly bumpy for the man who literally wrote the book on Fixing Failed States. The odds were stacked against Ghani, a professor of anthropology with degrees from the American University in Beirut and Columbia University in New York, from the start. Going into the 2013-14 polls, Ghani had to shake the image of an out-of-touch technocrat who had spent 24 years abroad and finished a distant fourth in the previous polls.

From the get go, foreign critics pointed to Ghani's physical appearance as signs of a man trying to make superficial overtures to a people they claimed he had distanced himself from.

To his detractors, swapping business suits for the traditional piran tomban (the loose tunic shirt and harem-style pants) and longi (turban), and using his tribal last name, Ahmadzai — an influential kochi (Pashtun nomad) family from eastern Afghanistan — were seen as drastic changes in Ghani's demeanor.

"To become president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai changed his wardrobe and modified his name," a Guardian profile said of the man once in the running to succeed Kofi Annan as UN secretary-general.

For his supporters and family, however, those criticisms constituted a flimsy straw man. As a native of Sorkh Ab village in the eastern Logar Province, Ghani's boosters say this year's campaign season was by far not the first time he donned traditional clothes, nor was it the first time he has identified with his Ahmadzai roots, with which he has always had a close bond.

Asadullah Hamdam, former governor of the southern province of Uruzgan, sees little value in these claims. He told VICE News: "Of course wherever you go you try to fit in with the people, but these things — clothing — don't mean much to people. What attracted the people of Uruzgan and Zabul [both in the south of the country] was his character and the fact that after years of feeling left out and unheard, Ghani represented a new, but experienced, face that would bring change to the nation. Clothing is secondary."

Mohammad Sajid Arghandaiwal, a native of the Paghman district of Kabul, agrees and told VICE News: "Clothing is linked to the society you're in. In the US he dressed in suits and ties because that's how others dressed."

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For Ghani's domestic critics, and even those who would go on to support his bid, his choice of Dostum — a man who still maintains a private army — as a vice presidential pick was the first sign of trouble. "People, especially Pashtuns, were shocked. Dostum and his militias were known as Pashtun slaughterers," Emran Feroz, an Austria-based Afghan journalist, told VICE News. An October 2013 op-ed in a local news outlet called Ghani a "hypocrite politician" for choosing a "known killer" — a reference to Ghani's own letter to the London Times in 2009.

Despite the criticisms, Ghani defended Dostum as a changed man, claiming that he would help him embrace the Uzbek voting bloc — estimated to number up to two million — in a bid to unify the Afghan people. "The ticket is a realistic balance between forces that have been produced in the last 30 years and have a base in this society," Ghani told Reuters in June.

Ghani's opponents have often said that his decades outside Afghanistan — most notably during the jihad against Soviet occupation — further distances him from the people, especially compared to his election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who is closely tied to the mujahideen movement.

Yet his supporters say that this might not necessarily be a bad thing. To them, the time away also meant he took no part in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s, which saw some commanders, including his own vice-presidential pick, destroy much of the capital. "He never launched a rocket, never killed anyone," is a commonly heard phrase when asking Afghans about why they chose Ghani.

On the charges that his time abroad distanced him from his own people, Ghani maintains that he has been fully committed to Afghanistan, both before and after his 2001 return. From 2002 to 2004, Ghani served as finance minister, where he reformed the Afghan currency system and helped establish a booming mobile communication.

More recently, Ghani served as chairman of the Transition Coordination Commission, the body tasked with facilitating the move to Afghan-led security, and the chief negotiator of the Bilateral Security Agreement between Washington and Kabul. Most importantly, as head of the transition, Ghani said he was able to travel to the 34 provinces of Afghanistan 140 times in a two-year period.

Still, as this year's ballot moved past the June 14 second round, Ghani had to defend himself against his rival Abdullah Abdullah's claims of widespread government-assisted fraud. For months, Abdullah said he had proof of 2.5 million fraudulent votes that led to Ghani's 55 percent runoff victory.

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Abdullah provided recordings he said proved a high-level election commission official, provincial governors, and even Karzai's second vice president conspired to commit fraud. During a UN-supervised audit of all 8 million votes cast in the second round — agreed to by Abdullah and Ghani after meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry — Abdullah said he had evidence of fraudulent ballot results, tampered ballot boxes, and similarly marked votes for Ghani.

Ghani's supporters, however, say the claims were unfounded. To them, Ghani's victory was the result of a unique campaign that embraced local religious officials, set the groundwork for women in rural areas to cast ballots, used new high-tech "get out the vote strategies" including social media and SMS messages, as well as personal efforts by local residents across the east and south of the country.

And Ghani now leads a people many once said he had little connection with. Pardes Mahmoudi, a political science student at the American University of Afghanistan, told VICE News that he campaigned for Ghani because he was "the most capable candidate, he will take corruption seriously into consideration and will make a state of rule and of law."

Those who volunteered for the campaign, said Mahmoudi, did so because they believed Ghani to be an educated and capable leader.

It was this embrace of his Afghan roots, most notably embodied in the statement that "no Afghan is greater or lesser than another," coupled with his utilization of new strategies that Ghani's supporters claim won him the election.

In his inauguration address on Monday, Ghani continued in this spirit. Referencing Abu Bakr Sediq, the first caliph of Islam, Ghani declared: "I am your leader, but I am no better than you, if I err; hold me to account."

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye