Ashraf Ghani has been inaugurated as the new president of Afghanistan, in the country’s first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the Taliban.
The former finance minister was sworn in at a lavish ceremony in Kabul’s presidential palace on Monday, marking the end of former President Hamid Karzai’s 13-year rule.
Ghani had been named president-elect after signing a deal to share power with his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, ending months of turmoil over a disputed election.
Under the terms of the deal, Ghani will share power with a chief executive proposed by Abdullah. The two will share control over who leads key institutions such as the Afghan army and other executive decisions.
Ghani, now 65, was a career academic and economist at World Bank who left Afghanistan in 1977 and only returned 24 years later to pursue his dream of rebuilding the country.
He studied at New York’s Columbia University, before teaching at several US universities during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He worked with the World Bank from 1991, becoming an expert on the Russian coal industry, and finally moved back to Kabul as a senior UN special adviser soon after the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.
He never allowed anyone to get too close, remaining aloof. Unfortunately his explosions of bad temper and displays of arrogance with fellow Afghans and Westerners were all too frequent and soon made him a loathed figure.
Ghani was a key figure in the interim government and became a powerful finance minister under President Hamid Karzai from 2002 to 2004, campaigning hard against burgeoning corruption.
Renowned for his energy, Ghani introduced a new currency, set up a tax system, encouraged wealthy expat Afghans to return home, and cajoled donors as the country emerged from the Taliban era.
But he also demonstrated a divisive character which earned him a reputation that still dogs him today.
“He never allowed anyone to get too close, remaining aloof,” wrote veteran author Ahmed Rashid, who has known him for 25 years.
After performing poorly in the 2009 election, Ghani shocked many Afghans this time by choosing as a running mate General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord accused of multiple human rights abuses.
But Ghani lit up the campaign trail with a series of fiery speeches around the country, and he did better than many expected in the first round by taking 31.6 percent of the vote to the 45 percent of his rival Abdullah Abdullah.
Abdullah, who won the most votes in the first round, had refused to accept the results of the presidential runoff that showed Ghani in the lead. He accused officials of indulging in vote fraud.
Ghani is Pashtun – like Karzai – and recently started using his tribal name Ahmadzai to underline his background, though he stresses the importance of unifying Afghanistan’s disparate ethnic groups.
His most recent role was overseeing the security transition from NATO to Afghan command, a job which he used to travel to all parts of the country and raise his public profile.
Ghani is married to Rula, whom he met while studying for his first degree at the American University in Lebanon, and has two children.
He maintains a disciplined daily routine after losing part of his stomach to cancer that also destroyed his immune system, leaving him to nibble on snacks as he is unable to digest a full meal.
Some say his brush with death fuels his fierce determination – as well as his decision to take a tilt at the top job against the odds.
The president-elect’s latest challenge would be to repair frayed ties with the US, which plans to withdraw its troops out of the country at the end of this year. The new Afghan president’s first acts would be to sign a long-delayed bilateral security agreement with the US to allow a small force of foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.