Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, wakes up before five every morning and reads for two or three hours. He makes his way daily through an inch-thick stack of official documents. He reads proposals by applicants competing for the job of mayor of Herat and chooses the winner. He reads presentations by forty-four city engineers for improvements to Greater Kabul. He has been known to write his own talking points and do his own research on upcoming visitors. Before meeting the Australian foreign minister, he read the Australian government’s white paper on foreign aid. He read four hundred pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report on the day of its release, and the next day he apologized to General John Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, for having not quite finished it. He reads books on the transition from socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe, on the Central Asian enlightenment of a thousand years ago, on modern warfare, on the history of Afghanistan’s rivers. He lives and works in the Arg—a complex of palaces inside a nineteenth-century fortress in central Kabul—where books, marked up in pencil, lie open on desks and tables.
Two decades ago, Ghani lost most of his stomach to cancer. He has to eat small portions of food, such as packets of dates, half a dozen times a day. He sometimes takes digestive breaks, resting—and reading—on a narrow bed in an alcove behind his office in Gul Khana Palace. Or he sits with a book in his favorite spot, under a chinar tree in the garden of Haram Sarai Palace, where the library of the late King Zahir is preserved. During the Presidency of Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, the library was a dusty pile of antique volumes. After Ghani took office, in September, 2014, he organized the royal collection. Whereas Karzai filled the palace with visitors and received petitioners during meals, Ghani often eats alone. After twelve years in power, Karzai and his family walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars from Afghan and international coffers. Ghani’s net worth, according to his declaration of assets, is about four million dollars. It consists largely of his house, on four acres in western Kabul, and his collection of seven thousand books.
A trained anthropologist who spent years doing field work for the World Bank, Ghani has been in and out of the Afghan government ever since the overthrow of the Taliban, in 2001. His abiding concern has been how to create viable institutions in poor countries overrun with violence, focussing on states that can’t enforce laws, create fair markets, collect taxes, provide services, or keep citizens safe. In 2006, Ghani and his longtime collaborator, a British human-rights lawyer named Clare Lockhart, started a consultancy, the Institute for State Effectiveness, in Washington, D.C. Two years later, they published “Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World.” It describes the core functions of a state and suggests such measures as tapping the expertise of citizens in building institutions. By then, the theme was no longer a technical subject. The chaos in Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan threatened global security.
Theorists are rarely given such a dramatic chance to put their ideas into practice. Afghanistan has been at war ever since the Soviet invasion of 1979, when Ghani was a thirty-year-old doctoral candidate at Columbia University. Most of the country, including several provincial capitals, is threatened by the Taliban, even as the insurgency devolves into a network of narco-criminal enterprises. In sixty per cent of Afghanistan’s three hundred and ninety-eight districts, state control doesn’t exist beyond a lonely government building and a market. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have established a presence in the east. Afghanistan can’t police its borders, and its neighbors give sanctuary and assistance to insurgents. (In May, Mullah Mansour, the Taliban leader, was killed by an American drone strike while driving from Zahedan, Iran, where he reportedly consulted with Iranian officials, to his base, in Quetta, Pakistan, with a fraudulent Pakistani passport.) Afghanistan’s finances depend on foreign aid and opium. Corruption is endemic. After the departure of a hundred and twenty-seven thousand foreign troops, in 2014, the economy collapsed, unemployment soared, and hundreds of thousands of Afghans abandoned the country. Ghani is the elected President of a failed state. A slight man with a short gray beard and deep-set eyes under a bald dome, Ghani bears a resemblance to Gandhi, except that he does not seem like a man at peace. He hunches over and winces, head tilted, and when he gestures he keeps his elbows pinned to his sides. He laughs at odd moments, and he can’t control his temper. Young loyalists surround him, but he has alienated powerful allies. Isolated in the Arg, Ghani works killingly long hours and buries himself in projects that should be left to subordinates. “Because he’s been an academic for a very long time, he just can’t help a mode of working that requires him to study and analyze every problem,” a senior Afghan official said. “If he asked for a file on garbage collection in Kabul, and he received a binder of five hundred pages, he would finish it that night—and then take copious notes.”
Whereas Karzai talked warmly with guests for hours, leaving everyone happy, Ghani disdains small talk, and visitors come away feeling intimidated or slighted. Once, in Kabul, the President scheduled fifteen minutes for Ismail Khan, a powerful warlord from western Afghanistan. Jelani Popal, one of Ghani’s closest advisers, told him, “See him for as long as he wants or don’t see him at all—but you can’t spend just fifteen minutes.” Ghani stood firm: the corrupt and brutal emir of Herat was worth exactly a quarter of an hour.
Ghani is a visionary technocrat who thinks twenty years ahead, with a deep understanding of what has destroyed his country and what might yet save it. “He’s incorruptible,” the senior official said. “He wants to transform the country. And he can do it. But it seems as if everything is arrayed against him.” Ghani is the kind of reformer that the American government desperately needed as a partner during the erratic later years of Karzai’s rule. Yet he has few admirers in the State Department, and in Kabul the élite don’t hide their contempt. They call Ghani an arrogant micromanager and say that he has no close friends, no feel for politics—that he is the leader of a country that exists only in his own mind. Ghani is Afghanistan’s Jimmy Carter. Many observers don’t expect Ghani to complete his term, which ends in 2019, and 2016 is described as a year of national survival. “This is the year of living dangerously,” Scott Guggenheim, an American economic adviser to Ghani, said. “He’ll either make it or he won’t.”
American officials no longer risk driving—from dawn to dark, helicopters clatter over the U.S. Embassy compound. Smelling weakness, Afghan politicians scheme in lavish compounds built with stolen money, each convinced that he should be inside the Arg. In the mountains around Kabul, the Taliban are just a few miles away.
“My father’s mother really had a profound influence on me,” Ghani said. “She literally began her day with an hour of reading. But the most fundamental impact was education.” We were seated in facing chairs, in a ceremonial room on the second floor of Gul Khana Palace. The soaring walls and pillars were of green onyx, the doors of inlaid walnut. Ghani, by contrast, looked like a well-off shopkeeper, in a traditional dark-gray shalwar kameez and a black coat, conveying that he is a native son and drawing a firm line between his current life and the decades he spent in American universities and with global institutions.
In 2011, Ghani and his daughter, Mariam—an artist who lives in Brooklyn—published a pamphlet titled “Afghanistan: A Lexicon,” a mini-encyclopedia that chronicles cycles of reform, reaction, and chaos that have recurred in the country. The opening entry is on Amanullah, Afghanistan’s king from 1919 to 1929. Amanullah was the first great modernizer: he oversaw the writing of a constitution, improved education, encouraged freedoms for women, and planned an expansion of the capital. He also fought to make Afghanistan’s foreign policy independent of Britain. But Amanullah offended key elements of society, including the mullahs, and he was overthrown by tribal leaders. Although Amanullah “accomplished a remarkable amount,” Ashraf and Mariam Ghani wrote, he “did not succeed in permanently changing Afghanistan, since his ultimate failure to forge a broad political consensus for his reforms left him vulnerable to rural rebellion.” Rapid modernization undone by conservative revolt became both template and warning for Afghan progressives, “who have returned again and again to his unfinished project, only to succumb to their own blind spots.”
Ghani comes from a prominent Pashtun family. His paternal grandfather, a military commander, helped install King Nadir, who assumed power shortly after Amanullah’s overthrow, in 1929. Ghani’s father was a senior transport official under Nadir’s son, King Zahir, who reigned for forty years. Ghani was born in 1949. He grew up in Kabul’s old city, spending weekends and vacations riding horses and hunting on the ancestral farm, forty miles south. He was teased at school—he was undersized, and sometimes bent over like an old man—but he impressed classmates with his seriousness. In 1966, his junior year of high school, he travelled to America as an exchange student. At his new school, in Oregon, Ghani won a student-council seat reserved for a foreigner. “The first council meeting, we made some simple decisions,” he said. “Lo and behold, the next week they were implemented, because the council had access to money.” The experience shaped his thinking about development: “You can get together, you can talk as much as you want, but if there’s not a decision-making process—that’swhere democracy really matters.”
In 1973, Ghani received a political-science degree from the American University of Beirut, where he fell in love with Rula Saade, a Lebanese Christian. They got engaged, and in 1974, after Ghani returned to Kabul to teach, his prospective father-in-law paid him a visit. “You’re going to end up in politics and you’re going to ruin my daughter’s life,” Rula’s father said. Ghani replied, not quite truthfully, “I’m totally committed to being an academic.” (The couple married in 1975, and, in addition to Mariam, they have a son, Tarek.)
In July, 1973, the monarchy was overthrown by the King’s cousin Daoud, who became Afghanistan’s first President. Daoud initially aligned himself with the Communists and, according to the Ghani “Lexicon,” he “reiterated the flawed model of modernization imposed from above.” In 1978, Communist troops shot Daoud to death as he tried to hide behind a pillar in Gul Khana Palace. Assassination followed assassination until the end of 1979, when the Soviets invaded and the jihad began. The Arg is haunted by its murdered occupants.
In 1977, Ghani and his family left Afghanistan, and he didn’t live there again for a quarter century. At Columbia, he completed a dissertation in cultural anthropology. “Production and Domination: Afghanistan, 1747-1901” analyzes the nation’s difficulty in building a centralized state in terms of its economic backwardness. The writing is almost impenetrable: “By focusing on movements of concomitant structures, I have attempted to isolate the systemic relations among the changing or non-changing elements that combine to form a structure.” The author moves between clouds of abstraction and mounds of data—nineteenth-century irrigation methods in Herat, kinship networks in Pashtun financial systems—without readily discernible priorities. In the eighties, Ghani taught at Berkeley and at Johns Hopkins, and in 1991 he became an anthropologist for the World Bank, based in Washington, D.C. Travelling half the year, he became an expert on finance in Russia, China, and India. “He really had a moral purpose—solving poverty for real people,” Clare Lockhart said. “When he arrived in capital cities, he’d go to the markets to see what people were buying and selling, then he’d go out to the provinces and villages. He’d interview groups of miners.” Such field work was unusual for a World Bank official. James Wolfensohn, who became president of the bank in 1995, shifted its emphasis from simply lending money to poor countries to attempting to reduce poverty. He wanted to know why African and Latin American countries that followed the bank’s liberalization policies remained poor. The answer had to do with corruption, weak institutions, and ill-conceived practices by donors. Wolfensohn ordered a review of the bank’s programs, and Ghani submitted many blistering critiques, which made him unpopular with his colleagues.
Meanwhile, he was preparing for a future in Afghanistan. In 1997, with the Taliban controlling most of the country, a Columbia graduate student interviewed Ghani at the World Bank. “When we get peace in Afghanistan, we’ll go to New Zealand to learn best practices for raising sheep,” Ghani said. “We’ll go to Switzerland and study hydroelectric projects.” Afghanistan—mountains, deserts, ungoverned spaces—has always seemed to offer a blank slate for utopian dreamers: British imperialists, hippie travellers, Communists, Islamists, international do-gooders. Alex Thier, who worked for the U.N. in Afghanistan in the nineties and, later, with Ghani in Kabul, described him as an “N.G.O.-style revolutionary, as if he grew up in a cadre of the World Bank rather than in the Communist Party.” To be a visionary is, in some ways, to be depersonalized, to refuse to see what’s in front of one’s face.
On September 11, 2001, Ghani was at his desk in Washington, and he knew immediately that everything was about to change for Afghanistan. He drafted a five-step plan for a political transition to a broad-based Afghan government that could be held accountable for rebuilding the country; he warned against funding and arming the warlords who had brought Afghanistan to ruin and the Taliban to power. During the American-led war against the Taliban, a small group of experts—including Lockhart, the Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin, and the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, then the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan—met at Ghani’s house outside Washington. That December, the group’s work influenced the Bonn Agreement, which mapped steps toward representative rule, while leaving unresolved the conflict between Ghani’s vision of a modern state and the interests of regional power brokers.
Six months later, Karzai became Afghanistan’s leader. Ghani’s first job in the new administration was to coördinate and track foreign aid. He believed that Afghans needed to set their own priorities for development rather than be at the mercy of the conflicting agendas of foreign countries and international agencies. Some Afghans and Westerners saw Ghani, after decades in the U.S., as a foreigner in his own land. But he is a prickly nationalist who would have been an egghead anywhere. He had a particular animus toward Western aid officials who had plenty of money and power but scant knowledge or humility. He once dressed down a contingent from the U.S. Agency for International Development for their incompetence. Ghani was among the first to foresee that a flood of foreign aid could enrich foreign contractors and turn officials corrupt while doing little for ordinary Afghans.
With Hanif Atmar, the Minister of Rural Development, Ghani created the National Solidarity Program—grants in amounts of twenty thousand to sixty thousand dollars for twenty-three thousand Afghan villages, largely funded by the World Bank. (The idea came from similar World Bank programs that Ghani had studied in Indonesia and India.) Afghan villagers were required to elect a council of men and women, devise their own goals—such as clean water or a new school—and make public their accounting figures. In one case, thirty-seven villages pooled their money to build a maternity hospital. Clare Lockhart met families just returned from exile in Iran, living in animal-skin shelters. One woman, describing the importance of the grant, told her, “It’s not about the money.”
“Don’t tell her that,” another villager said. “She’ll take the money away.”
“I don’t have that authority,” Lockhart explained.
The first woman finished her thought: “It’s that we’re trusted to do this.”
The N.S.P. was one of Afghanistan’s most successful and least corrupt programs. A new school cost a sixth of one built with a U.S.A.I.D. contract. Paul O’Brien, an Irishman who served as an adviser to Ghani, said Ghani understood that “the key to development is strong domestic institutions that can regulate all the actors around them, including international do-gooders.” When Ghani challenged foreigners to tell him what accountability measures they wanted in return for giving Afghan institutions control of the money and the agenda, “they wouldn’t do it,” O’Brien said. Donors had brought their “development army in all its glory, and that meant outputs and contracts and boxes checked.”
Instead of sending money to local communities through Afghan channels, donors like U.S.A.I.D. bid out contracts to large international companies, which in turn hired subcontractors and private security companies, none of which had a long-term stake in Afghanistan. In a 2005 ted talk on failed states, Ghani called such programs “the ugly face of the developed world to the developing countries,” adding, “Tens of billions of dollars are supposedly spent on building capacity with people who are paid up to fifteen hundred dollars a day, who are incapable of thinking creatively or organically.”
The National Solidarity Program didn’t get to write Afghanistan’s future. Some estimate that during the peak years of foreign spending on Afghanistan only ten to twenty cents of every aid dollar reached the intended beneficiaries. Waste on a scale of several hundred billion dollars is the work of many authors, but the U.S. government was among the chief ones.
In the summer of 2002, Karzai named Ghani Minister of Finance. The Ministries of Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs were more obvious bases for building personal power, but Ghani put in twenty-hour days, holding staff meetings at 7 a.m., in a building with shattered windows and no heat. He introduced anti-corruption measures, established a centralized revenue system, and created a new currency, supporting it with the traditional hawala network of money trading. He urged his staff to take on the drug and land mafias that were infiltrating the state, saying, “We need to hit them everywhere, so they won’t have the space to establish networks.” This was the blank-slate phase of post-Taliban Afghanistan, and Ghani became the most effective figure in the new government. “The golden period of the Karzai rule was when Ashraf Ghani was Finance Minister,” Jelani Popal, a deputy in the Finance Ministry, said. “Karzai was a people person and kept the integrity of the state and society, but Ghani was the de-facto Prime Minister and the main engine of reform.”
Ghani’s temper, perhaps inflamed by the effects of his stomach cancer, became notorious. He shouted at Afghan staff and Western advisers alike. Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, had known him for decades—they were in college together in Beirut—and he challenged Ghani: “Why do you have such a bad temper?” Ghani denied it, Khalilzad repeated stories he’d heard, and they went back and forth until Ghani slammed his fist on a table and exploded: “I don’t have a temper!” Ghani’s combination of probity and arrogance antagonized the entire Karzai cabinet. When he discovered that the Minister of Defense, the Tajik warlord Mohammed Fahim, was padding his payroll with tens of thousands of “ghost” troops, Ghani slashed Fahim’s budget. Ghani later heard that Fahim went to the Arg and told Karzai that he wanted to murder Ghani—to which Karzai replied, “There’s a very long line for killing Ashraf.”
In 2004, after being elected President, Karzai made noises about dismissing Ghani. Lakhdar Brahimi asked Karzai, “Do you have anybody better than him?” Karzai said no. Brahimi encouraged him to try to work with Ghani, even though he knew that nobody in the cabinet supported Ghani, either. Brahimi asked Ghani, “You’ve been here three years and you don’t have a friend in this country?” Ali Jalali, then the Minister of Interior, said that Ghani had clashed with cabinet members from the Northern Alliance, such as Fahim, in his campaign to take power away from the warlords. Several people also told me that Khalilzad had been competing with Ghani since their university days and leveraged American influence over Karzai to undermine Ghani. (Khalilzad said that he had tried to get Karzai to change his mind, but failed.) By 2005, Ghani was gone. He later insisted that he had resigned because the government was descending into narco-corruption.
The government lost its brightest light. “If he had stayed, Afghanistan would be completely different today,” Popal said. Karzai, a master at keeping his various constituencies in the tent, had no interest in the ideas that consumed Ghani. With the American troop presence too small to secure the country, Karzai used foreign largesse to empower local strongmen, whose behavior led to the return of the Taliban.
Ghani briefly became chancellor of Kabul University. A former student there remembers that he was always either yelling at groups of undergraduates or promising things that he couldn’t deliver—a state-of-the-art library, for example. Karzai tried repeatedly to bring Ghani back. Once, in 2008, he summoned Ghani and Popal to the Arg. “I made a mistake,” Karzai said. “I’ll give you more power than before.” He offered Ghani the Ministry of Interior. Ghani refused, saying, “You are a very suspicious man. You listened to people and fired me.” Privately, Ghani confided to Popal that he planned to run for President against Karzai the next year. By then, Popal was in charge of the powerful department of local governance. “I know all the districts,” he told Ghani. “You don’t have a chance.” Ghani insisted that he could give speeches that would mobilize millions of Afghans. “It doesn’t work that way,” Popal told him. “You need to establish relationships.Share
I met Ghani in Kabul in the spring of 2009, as the campaign was about to begin. He had given up his American citizenship in order to run. He described a “double failure” in Afghanistan: a failure of imagination by the international community and a failure by Afghan élites “to be the founding fathers—and mothers, because there are some—of a new state.” He received a group of university students in his home, a beautiful post-and-beam structure in traditional Nuristani style. Ghani listened to the students complain about nato firepower killing civilians, about Afghan corruption, about American manipulation of the election in Karzai’s favor. They didn’t know that American officials, disillusioned with Karzai, had encouraged Ghani to run against him. Before I left, Ghani gave me a chapan, the intricately woven coat of northern Afghanistan, and a copy of “Fixing Failed States.” I saw no sign of a volatile character—he was confident of his prospects. But Popal was right: Ghani had no following, and he received a humiliating three per cent of the vote. Karzai was reëlected amid charges of rampant voter fraud that embittered his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, and fatally damaged his relationship with the United States. Karzai, who could not run for a third term, withdrew into the Arg and steeped himself in conspiracy theories about the West. A billion-dollar Ponzi scheme was exposed at the country’s largest bank. Karzai’s final years in office were a political death agony. During this period, Ghani was in charge of preparing Afghanistan for the withdrawal of nato forces and the handover of military authority to the Afghan Army by the end of 2014. The job, which was pro bono, allowed him to travel around the country, visiting provincial governors, corps commanders, and district police chiefs. It was a kind of listening tour, convincing him of the people’s desire for reform. In 2014, he ran again for President. He published a three-hundred-page campaign manifesto, “Continuity and Change.” It was a classic Ghani production. “It is very smart in diagnosing all these problems,” Alex Thier said. “He’s an idea factory with all these proposals—but you don’t read it with a sense that they will all be accomplished.” When you cut through the language, the manifesto is a call for the empowerment of the Afghan people against corrupt élites: “Outstanding individuals, intellectuals, women, young people, producers of culture, workers, and other parts of society wish for change, and we want to respond to this wish.” Ghani stopped wearing Western suits and started using his tribal name, Ahmadzai. He hired young campaign aides who were savvy about social media, and he gave rousing speeches declaring that “every Afghan is equal” and that “our masters will be the people of Afghanistan.” There were rumors that he was taking anger-management classes. During the campaign, Farkhunda Naderi, a female member of parliament, suggested in a TV debate that the next President should name a woman—the first—to Afghanistan’s high court, which has the power to nullify laws deemed contrary to Islamic law. “Unless you get a woman on the Supreme Court, all the rights women get are on the surface and symbolic,” she told me. Naderi had suggested the idea to Karzai, only to be told that no woman was qualified. Karzai’s wife, a doctor, was rarely seen in public during his years in the Arg, but Rula Ghani was a prominent surrogate for her husband during the campaign, to the delight of some Afghans and to the chagrin of others. During a campaign speech at a Kabul high school, Ghani announced his intention to select a woman for the Supreme Court. Naderi, who was in attendance, listened in disbelief. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ He was brave to do that.” In a naked attempt to win the votes of minority Uzbeks, Ghani selected Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, as a candidate for Vice-President. Dostum is accused of so many killings that he’s barred from entering the United States. Ghani once called him “a known killer.” Naderi was forced to defend Ghani to friends who supported human rights. “It means he’s a politician,” she told them. “If you’re going to do something in Afghanistan, you can’t import other people. You have to do something with the people who are here.” This had been the dilemma for Afghan reformers ever since King Amanullah: how, when, and whether to compromise. Ghani was showing that he, too, could play politics the old, dirty way. In the first round of voting, on April 5th, Ghani came in second among eight candidates, with thirty-one per cent. Abdullah Abdullah, who had lost to Karzai in 2009, led, with forty-five per cent. Elegant and diplomatic, Abdullah was a familiar figure in Afghan politics. Of Pashtun and Tajik parentage, he was identified politically with the Tajiks. Abdullah and Ghani had served together in the first Karzai cabinet, with Abdullah as Foreign Minister, and they shared pro-Western, pro-reform, anti-corruption views. “I’ve known Abdullah since 1995 and Ghani since 2002,” Thier said. “These guys really care. They are not cynical, they’re not trying to turn the affairs of state to their own benefit.” Three-quarters of the nearly seven million voters chose one of these two candidates—evidence that, despite years of war, foreign interference, and disappointed hopes, Afghans still wanted a modern country. Inevitably, the runoff between Ghani and Abdullah, in June, played out along ethnic lines, with Pashtuns—the country’s largest group—consolidating around Ghani. When early official results showed Ghani leading, Abdullah claimed a fraud on the scale of the 2009 election. An adviser to Abdullah blamed Karzai and his handpicked election commissioners, saying that they wanted power to revert to agreements among élites, with Karzai as kingmaker, if not king. Fifteen thousand Abdullah supporters marched on the Arg to protest the election. Ghani’s circle was equally adamant. His campaign coördinator at the time, Hamdullah Mohib, recalls a meeting in which Ghani advisers discussed bringing a hundred thousand people into the streets. Ghani told them, in his didactic way, “A civil war lasts on average ten or fifteen years, and even then they’re very hard to end—ours is still going on. I can guarantee that tomorrow, if you march on Kabul, the first bullet will be fired. If anyone can guarantee when the last bullet will be fired, then I’ll allow the march.” The U.N. mission in Kabul supervised an audit. James Cunningham, the American Ambassador at the time, recalls, “The U.N. and E.U. people really worked their asses off, being accused every day of malfeasance by one side or the other. There were fistfights inside hot warehouses, and lots of yelling.” The audit showed fraud on both sides, more of it favoring Ghani than Abdullah. American officials feared that the dispute could cause Afghanistan to fracture along ethnic lines. In July, 2014, a document circulated in the State Department:
We should be modest about the audit mechanism—given the apparent closeness of the election and the involvement of the chief electoral officer in fraud, it is almost impossible that we will ever know who won . . . with sufficient clarity to persuade his disappointed opponent. The audits are a way to buy time for political accommodations and eventually to certify and add some credibility to a result.
American officials spent the summer negotiating a deal between Ghani and Abdullah. The loser would have to accept the other as President, without conceding the final vote, and in return would be named Chief Executive Officer—a Prime Ministerial position that doesn’t exist in the Afghan constitution. (The suggestion came from Ghani.) The results of the audit would not be released, to spare the defeated candidate a loss of face. Both Ghani’s and Abdullah’s camps resisted the arrangement, each certain that it had won outright. According to a U.S. intelligence assessment that September, there was a strong chance that, for lack of an agreement, Karzai would stay in office or that Abdullah and the Northern Alliance would declare a parallel government. Daniel Feldman, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who was involved in the negotiations, said, “If Karzai had stayed in, or if there had been a parallel government, that would have been the end of our presence in Afghanistan, and probably the end of Afghanistan—civil war on top of the Taliban.”
By mid-September, the audit had been finished: Ghani was judged the winner. But Abdullah wasn’t ready to concede. Secretary of State John Kerry called Ghani from Paris; citing the audit, he said that if fraudulent votes were discounted the gap closed significantly in Abdullah’s favor. Ghani took this to mean that the U.S. believed he had lost an election he’d tried to steal. If he was taking anger-management classes, they didn’t work. He summoned Feldman to his house for a chewing-out that lasted several hours. Grudgingly, Ghani and Abdullah accepted a compromise. On September 21st, they signed a document creating a National Unity Government. On the crucial issue of the distribution of political appointments, Abdullah had wanted the language to read “equal” and Ghani “fair.” They compromised on “equitable.” Since there was no word for it in Dari, one had to be invented: bara barguna, or “equalish.” The N.U.G. was an act of statesmanship on both sides, but no one was happy with it. To the public, it suggested that Afghan democracy was a back-room deal brokered by élites and foreigners.
Ghani was inaugurated on September 29, 2014. It was the first peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan since 1901, but Ghani and his aides felt that he had been forced to become something less than Afghanistan’s legitimate President. When Ghani took office, his approval rating was above eighty per cent. Eighteen months later, in March, when I met him in Kabul, it was twenty-three per cent.
In our interview, I asked how “Fixing Failed States” had guided him as President. “It’s a road map for where do you begin, when you arrive, and what you do as a leader,” Ghani answered. “One of the first things I did was to ask my colleagues in the cabinet to prepare hundred-day action plans.” He went on, “Organizations are accumulations of historical debris. They are not consciously thought. So when you ask the Education Ministry ‘What’s your core function and who’s your client?’ they laugh at you. When I say that the client is the Afghan child—and the Ministry is an instrument, not the goal—it’s greeted with shock. It’s a new idea.”
This thought led Ghani to expound on Mountstuart Elphinstone, a nineteenth-century Scottish envoy and the author of “An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul,” which described the egalitarian nature of Afghan society. From there, Ghani’s mind jumped to the Iron Emir, Abdur Rahman, Amanullah’s grandfather, who imported the authoritarian idea of hierarchy from his years in exile in Russia. Then, as an example of the “inherited élitism” that distorts Afghan politics, Ghani told the story of a young man he had named Deputy Interior Minister, who had ordered a policeman beaten for stopping his vehicle because of a violation, and was then made to apologize on national television. Finally, Ghani arrived at the reign of Amanullah: “I call it the unfinished reform. A section of the élite was reformist, and then they met popular resistance. Today, the public is unbelievably aware of the constitution, of the world, and of its aspirations. The public is reformist.”
Seated across from Ghani, I found it hard to follow this two-hundred-year history of Afghan élitism. In retrospect, I can see its brilliance. But it still doesn’t seem like a road map for governing.
It was as if, after decades of thinking and reading and writing, he had to solve all Afghanistan’s problems at once. He assumed that he had a mandate from “society.” The élites were finished—“they’re out of touch,” he said. He began to impose his vision on every corner of government. He retired more than a hundred generals who had been skimming money from troop contracts. He demanded the resignations of all governors and cabinet ministers, and announced that nobody who had served in those capacities could do so again, thereby alienating fifty or so political veterans in one blow. He fired forty high-level prosecutors who had falsified their résumés. From an American-built command center in the basement of one of his palaces, Ghani held regular videoconference calls with his military commanders. He reviewed the portfolios of every international donor agency. Every Saturday, he sat at a long table in a wood-panelled room in Gul Khana Palace and chaired a committee on procurements, spending several hours reviewing contracts to make sure that they represented clean government. Ghani believed that doing such chores was the only way to solve Afghanistan’s core problems.
He trusted so few people that he could find nobody to hire as his spokesman, nobody to be mayor of Kabul. During cabinet meetings, some ministers felt so intimidated by Ghani that they busied themselves taking notes to impress him. Amrullah Saleh, a respected former intelligence chief, who was left out of the administration, said, “There is a silence in his cabinet, and it’s a treacherous silence. Ghani is not physically alone—he is intellectually alone.”
The public began hearing about ambitious projects. Ghani had become an authority on Afghanistan’s water resources, and he announced plans for twenty-nine dams, leaving the impression that they would be finished in two years. After a conversation with Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, Ghani told aides that India’s private sector would soon be investing twenty billion dollars in Afghanistan—a figure that seemed to come out of nowhere. Daniel Feldman, the American Special Representative, found Ghani’s ideas equally inspiring and implausible: “We’d walk out of meetings and say, ‘I’m not sure what country he’s talking about. It’s not Afghanistan. It sounds like a canton in Switzerland.’ ”
One morning in Char Chenar Palace, Ghani met with forty-four civil servants—forty men and four women—in charge of planning a new municipality northeast of Kabul, a variation on a project that has enticed Afghan reformers since Amanullah. As the engineers stated their pedigrees and their areas of expertise, Ghani jotted down notes while snacking on nuts, taking particular pleasure in introducing aides who had gone to Harvard or who had been named Silicon Valley’s engineer of the year. “I’ve read all the documents of the proposals you’ve submitted,” he said. “Let’s have a discussion of them.” One by one, the engineers and city planners presented slide shows about recycling, parking garages, solar-powered buses, electronic databases for title deeds. Ghani seemed perfectly happy spending a morning hearing ideas from young technocrats. Outside the Arg, mayorless Kabul was inundated with rainwater and uncollected garbage.
In “Fixing Failed States,” the chapter on politics is titled “Failed Politics”—Ghani’s book supposes that politics is destructive. He doesn’t think in terms of interests and bargains. He believes that people will act correctly once the reasonable course is shown to them (or imposed on them). After becoming President, Ghani all but ignored the traditional politics of Afghanistan—tribal networks, patronage systems, strongmen.
Under Karzai, politicians came to the palace with requests for money or for favors, and he heard them out. By one estimate, members of parliament stole a billion to a billion and a half dollars a year. During Ghani’s first year in office, he refused to meet with favor seekers. His chief of staff, Abdul Salam Rahimi, made himself so inaccessible that the joke around Kabul was that you had to call the President to see the chief of staff. Karzai used to pay the family of a power broker named Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani more than a hundred thousand dollars a month in “expense money” to keep its support. (Karzai denies this.) Ghani cut off the family, and Gailani’s sons became Ghani’s enemies. Something similar happened with Abdul Rassul Sayyaf, a former mujahid and one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan. “His initial request was for key ministries and provinces, so he could give them away,” one of Ghani’s advisers told me. “He didn’t get them. He was upset. What was more upsetting was he was no longer seen as close to power—he could no longer buy people’s loyalty.”
In Afghanistan, politics is the only path to status and power, which is why the scramble for government jobs is so fierce. Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, a banker and former Finance Minister, supported Ghani during the election. According to Ahady, Ghani promised him the Foreign Ministry, but when the time came Ghani hedged. Ahady became an opponent as well. “I’ve not promised any portfolio to anyone,” Ghani told me. “Mr. Ahady, if his sense of commitment to this nation is by portfolio, then he should judge himself.” Last year, the notorious police commander of Uruzgan Province, Matiullah Khan, was killed, and tribal elders came to Kabul to discuss his replacement. Ghani initially wouldn’t see them, but his advisers insisted. The elders wanted the job to go to Matiullah Khan’s brother. Ghani said that he would seek the best candidate, and later rejected their choice. In the following months, nearly two hundred security posts in the province fell to the Taliban as policemen changed their flags and switched sides. Ghani was capable of giving in to political reality. He allowed two strongmen to stay on—Atta Mohamed Noor, the governor of Balkh Province, in the north, and Abdul Razziq, the police chief of Kandahar—even though they were known for corruption and human-rights violations. They were essential partners in the fight against the Taliban, and under American pressure Ghani yielded.
One of Ghani’s young aides told him, “People say you’re not doing politics.”
“What kind of politics?” Ghani asked.
“You’re not meeting leaders, members of parliament, mujahideen.”
“It’s by choice that I don’t.”
“Why?” the aide asked. “These political élites are attacking you, and you’re losing political capital you need for reforms.”
“If I meet them, they will be all over me,” Ghani replied. “First, they’ll ask for my fingers, then my hands, then my legs. We will engage only if the discourse changes. When the time comes, you will see me meeting with them.” Ghani’s intransigence aroused so much resentment that he couldn’t get parliament to approve some of his key appointments. Until recent weeks, he had no intelligence chief and no confirmed Defense Minister. When he named a candidate to be the first female Supreme Court justice, parliament narrowly voted her down. Predictably, the National Unity Government failed to work. The signed agreement included no specifics on the distribution of appointments, and Abdullah and Ghani vetoed each other’s choices, or one of them held the process hostage until the other gave in. Ghani’s candidate for Attorney General was blocked while Abdullah’s camp tried to get one of its own hired for Minister of Interior. One of Abdullah’s top aides, a diplomat named Omar Samad, was appointed Ambassador to Belgium, the E.U., and nato. In April, Samad was about to travel to Brussels when the President’s office sent him a letter withdrawing nato from the portfolio. Samad rejected the deal and left Kabul to be with his family in Washington. “Tiny power struggles are going on,” Samad told me. “It’s a game of domination.”
The paralysis in Kabul so concerned Washington that President Barack Obama chided both leaders in a videoconference call in March, telling Abdullah, “The political agreement that you signed with President Ghani, as far as we know, did not give you veto power.” The Attorney General–Interior Minister swap finally went through. But Ghani’s advisers remained frustrated, blaming the N.U.G. for their inability to carry out their agenda. It’s a view that commands little sympathy in Washington. Ghani retains the loyalty of a few protégés, among them a man in his early thirties named Hamdullah Mohib. His parents had sent him to Britain in 2000, at the age of sixteen, in order to avoid conscription by the Taliban. Arriving at Heathrow without papers or money, he was taken on by a social-services agency as an unaccompanied minor. Alone in London, Mohib worked his way through college and graduate school, studying computer engineering. In 2008, he heard about a lecture at the London School of Economics by an Afghan politician who had written a book called “Fixing Failed States.” Mohib arranged to have the author speak to an Afghan student association in London. As Mohib and his friends waited for their guest to arrive, they went outside to hold parking places for the twenty-five-car entourage they expected. “I saw a man carrying his laptop bag, walking up the sidewalk,” Mohib recalls. “I was impressed. And then when he started talking—I’d never heard an Afghan politician talk like this. The others—it was all a show. And here was a man, it was all substance. He didn’t talk about himself. It was about Afghanistan and what we could do to fix it.”
Mohib worked on Ghani’s unsuccessful 2009 campaign, and in 2014 he became a top adviser. After the election, Ghani made Mohib his deputy chief of staff, then named him Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the United States. The appointment rankled senior politicians, as if Ghani had given the post to an errand boy. Ghani was signalling the eclipse of the generation of Afghans who had made their names fighting the Soviets and one another. “This is the critical time in our country’s history—my generation understands that,” Mohib said. “We either build systems and institutions that will protect my family and other people’s families, and good people will rise to the top—or we will lose, and the corrupt mafia win. If they win, it will be fiefdoms and the same families passing power from one generation to the next.”
One night, I had dinner in Kot-e-Baghcha Palace with Scott Guggenheim, the American economic adviser to Ghani. He worked with Ghani at the World Bank and, in 2002, helped create the National Solidarity Program. Guggenheim, a gregarious sixty-year-old who favors Indonesian shirts, was now living virtually alone, amid servants, in the palace. Heads of state had been invited to use it as a guest house, but almost none of them would stay overnight in Kabul. Guggenheim was given the room where, in 1979, a Communist leader was said to have been smothered in his bed.
Over dinner, Guggenheim said, “Ashraf’s biggest problem is not that he’s a bad politician but that he has a twenty-five-year vision and everyone thinks it means next year. He throws out completely unrealistic dates as placeholders.” Guggenheim described the terrible hand that had been dealt to Ghani, who took office amid the withdrawal of nearly all foreign troops. Afghanistan’s legal economy depended on U.S. bases and contracts, and after the withdrawal unemployment reached forty per cent—a disaster that the World Bank underestimated so drastically that donors hadn’t earmarked money for an emergency jobs program. American spending in Afghanistan went from about a hundred billion dollars in 2012 to half that last year. At the same time, the Afghan Army had to assume full responsibility for fighting a resurgent Taliban, with fewer weapons. Guggenheim compared the start of Ghani’s Presidency with Obama’s in 2009—“but with John Boehner as his Vice-President.” Hopelessness returned among Afghans, and a hundred and fifty-four thousand of them emigrated to Germany last year. Ghani chastised citizens for fleeing their country.
This article was originally published in The New Yorker on July 4, 2016