Profile: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee the country following the Taliban takeover has been criticised in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks to journalists after voting at Amani high school, near the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. Afghans headed to the polls on Satu
Ghani moved to Kabul as a senior UN adviser soon after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 [File: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

Ashraf Ghani has served as president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from 2014 until 2021 when the Taliban launched a lightning offensive across the country following the withdrawal of most US and NATO military personnel.

As Taliban fighters encircled the capital Kabul on August 15, 2021, Ghani fled the country in order to “avoid a bloodbath”, he said in a statement on his Facebook page.

“Today, I came across a hard choice: I should stand to face the armed Taliban who wanted to enter the [presidential] palace or leave the dear country that I dedicated my life to protecting the past twenty years,” he said.

Ghani did not specify where he and several members of his cabinet had departed to.

The 72-year-old former World Bank economist had left Afghanistan in 1977 and returned 24 years later to help rebuild the country following the US invasion of 2001.

A divisive character, the former academic rose to power in Afghanistan after winning a controversial election in 2014, his 2019 re-election win also dogged by disputes over the fairness of the poll.

Ghani’s political campaign stressed the importance of unifying Afghanistan’s disparate ethnic groups, with a notable slogan that said no Afghan was above another.

Nevertheless, the politician, who like former President Hamid Karzai is ethnically Pashtun, recently started using his tribal name Ahmadzai to underline his background.

Despite its difficulties, his first election as president in 2014 was considered the first-ever democratic transition of power in Afghan history.

Return to Afghanistan

Ghani is married and has a son and a daughter who live in the US.

A cancer survivor, he maintains a disciplined daily routine after losing part of his stomach.

Ghani studied at New York’s Columbia University and went on to teach at several US universities during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

He joined the World Bank in 1991, becoming an expert on the Russian coal industry, and moved back to Kabul as a senior UN special adviser soon after the Taliban was overthrown in late 2001.

He became a key figure in the interim government and a powerful finance minister under Karzai from 2002 to 2004, campaigning hard against endemic 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, earning himself a reputation that still dogs him today.

“He never allowed anyone to get too close, remaining aloof,” wrote author Ahmed Rashid, who has known him for 25 years.

After a poor showing in the 2009 presidential election, Ghani shocked many Afghans by choosing General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek strongman accused of multiple human rights abuses, as a running mate in the 2014 election.

But Ghani lit up the campaign trail with fiery speeches and did better than many expected in the first round, taking 31.6 percent of the vote to 45 percent for his rival Abdullah Abdullah.

Prior to the election, Ghani had the task of overseeing the security transition from NATO to Afghan command, a job that took him all over the country and raised his public profile.

Election deals

The 2014 and 2019 elections were highly contested.

Both times, Ghani was forced to strike a deal with Abdullah Abdullah, his main political rival, giving Abdullah senior positions in order to avoid a political crisis.

In 2014, Abdullah refused to accept the results of the June runoff that showed Ghani winning, accusing officials of vote fraud.

The crisis was solved with US intervention and the announcement of a UN-backed recount of the runoff.

Under the subsequent agreement that created a national unity government, Ghani became president and Abdullah was given the new title of chief executive.

Despite doubts and protests by Abdullah over the extent of his powers, the government lasted a full five-year term.

For the 2019 polls, Ghani traded his then-first vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, for Amrullah Saleh, an ethnic Tajik who had served as the head of intelligence.

The ballot saw the lowest voter turnout of any Afghan election and was contested by Abdullah, who eventually accepted a new title as chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation while Ghani remained president.

Determination, ties and challenges

After 2014, Ghani had to rebuild ties with the US after his predecessor Karzai had started to rail against Washington in the final years of his presidency.

As US and NATO forces left the country following a deal between US President Donald Trump’s government and the Afghan Taliban, Ghani’s government entered into direct negotiations with the Taliban for the first time in September 2020.

Those negotiations, led by Ghani’s rival Abdullah, ended fruitlessly, however, with the Taliban launching a major offensive across the country in the summer of 2021, retaking vast swaths of territory and several major cities.

In August, the offensive culminated in the capture of the Afghan capital Kabul, as Afghan government forces appeared to lay down their arms and Ghani – who had not appeared publicly since a pre-taped televised address a day earlier – fled the capital.

The move saw him roundly criticised in Afghanistan, with several political leaders accusing him of abandoning his post.

“The former president of Afghanistan has left Afghanistan … He has left the nation in this state [and for that] God will hold him to account,” Abdullah Abdullah said in a video statement.

“They tied our hands behind our backs and sold the homeland,” said Bismillah Mohammadi, Ghani’s acting minister of defence, following his abrupt departure. “Curse Ghani and his gang.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies