Ashraf Ghani: ‘Philosopher king’ or ethnonationalist?

Despite being labelled as an intellectual politician, Ashraf Ghani has been pursuing reckless identity politics.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attends Afghan Independence Day celebrations in Kabul [File photo: Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seems to have earned respect among some political circles thanks to his impressive educational background. With a PhD in anthropology and years of experience teaching at top US universities, he has been praised for his career achievements. In May 2014, Ghani was ranked second among “world thinkers” of 2013 by Britain’s Prospect Magazine. 

Ghani enjoyed the high regard of some Afghans as well. His inauguration as the head of the National Unity Government of Afghanistan (NUG) in September 2014 was met with some optimism among the educated segments of society. And that was despite widespread fraud during the election process which led to a power-sharing deal between Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

Thanks to his reputation as a “top thinker”, Ghani has long been portrayed as Plato’s “philosopher king” – someone who can lead multi-ethnic Afghanistan towards much-needed civic nationalism and transform the country’s image. 


Having worked with the UN and the World Bank, Ghani was seen as someone who could bridge the ethnocentric socio-political divides. However, over three years have passed since Ghani started his tenure as the head of NUG, and his performance proved that he is much more of an ethnonationalist than a “philosopher king”. 

A ‘philosopher king’ in foreign affairs

In foreign affairs, Ghani has done much better than former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. By pursuing pragmatic foreign policy strategies, Ghani’s government has improved its standing on the world stage and learned how to stand up to countries like Pakistan.


Under his leadership, Afghanistan has raised its voice against state sponsors of “terrorism” at regional and global forums. It has succeeded in convincing the international community to put pressure on Pakistan to give up its support for the Taliban. The new US strategy towards South Asia and its tougher rhetoric on Pakistan followed the intense lobbying efforts of Ghani’s government.

Afghanistan has also utilised regional mechanisms (such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process, etc.) to promote the country as a key economic link between South and Central Asia. As a result, Afghanistan is participating in major regional projects in the spheres of trade, transport, and energy.

Progress in foreign affairs is crucial for the future of Afghanistan, and thus far Ghani has done well.

An ethnonationalist in domestic affairs

However, on the domestic front, Afghanistan seems to be going down an uncertain path. Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, became president on the back of a very controversial election. Following accusations of unprecedented electoral violations, US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing deal between Ghani and the Jamiat-e Islami party candidate Abdullah Abdullah. While there were many reports of electoral fraud, the NUG Agreement made Ghani the president and Abdullah the chief executive officer, a position similar to a prime minister’s seat.

The agreement that brought Ghani to power mandated the NUG with amending the constitution to change the absolute presidential system to a semi-presidential one, with a prime minister as the head of government. It was also supposed to reform the electoral system and distribute electronic national identity cards. All of these reforms, which could have helped the formation of a truly democratic political system inclusive of all ethnic groups, were supposed to be implemented within two years of the election.


The NUG has been in power for nearly four years now, and none of these agreed measures has materialised. Furthermore, Ghani has made a number of controversial decisions that fuelled political tensions among the country’s ethnic groups further. For example, he repealed a law that would have each citizen choose what ethnicity they are for the new biometric identification cards. Now everyone will be classified as “Afghan”, a term many in the country perceive to refer to members of the Pashtun tribe. This has angered many non-Pashtun groups.


Apart from that, Ghani has isolated a number of prominent non-Pashtun leaders. He fired his senior adviser, Ahmad Zia Massoud, a well-known ethnic Tajik figure and former vice president. He forced First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the most powerful leader of the Uzbek community, into self-imposed exile after accusing him of ordering the kidnapping and rape of an elderly political opponent. Dostum has claimed that all accusations are part of a political plot against him.

Ghani has also severed relations with Mohammad Mohaqiq, a powerful Hazara leader who is one of CEO Abdullah’s deputies. He has locked horns with General Atta Noor, a highly influential Jamiat figure from the Tajik ethnic group in the north. Noor had been the governor of Balkh Province for 13 years until Ghani fired him in December last year.

While Ghani has systematically forced non-Pashtun leaders out of the unity government, he has surrounded himself with Pashtun ethnonationalist leaders. He signed a controversial peace deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious Pashtun tribal leader with ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) who is also known as “the butcher of Kabul” for the role he played in the destruction of Kabul in the 1990s civil wars.

Ghani has also appointed a handful of Pashtu-speaking advisors and has given them full access to government resources and decision-making authority within the Presidential Palace. For example, the president’s national security adviser, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, is in charge of security institutions. 

Under the NUG agreement, such executive powers should only be granted to the first vice president. Instead, Dostum is now in exile, and Ghani’s adviser enjoys all the privileges of his position – hiring, firing, promoting and demoting within the national army and police. 

The unprecedented executive power granted to Ghani’s advisors makes them de-facto chief ministers overriding the decision-making of the individuals appointed to these positions under the NUG.

So, looking at his domestic policies, it is impossible to deny that Ghani has been acting like an ethnonationalist. Presidential elections are coming up in a year’s time, and perhaps he thinks this strategy will guarantee him re-election. But pushing Afghanistan down a path of ethnic divisions is dangerous and could precipitate Ghani’s political demise.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.