How Afghanistan's Ghani went from president to villain in hiding

Mr Ghani fled Afghanistan on Aug 15. PHOTO: AFP/ASHRAF GHANI /FACEBOOK

KABUL (BLOOMBERG) - If anyone was supposed to know how to fix Afghanistan, it was Mr Ashraf Ghani.

Before becoming president in 2014, Mr Ghani spent much of his life studying how to boost growth in poor nations.

A Fulbright Scholar with a doctorate from Columbia University, he taught at some of America's elite academic institutions before stints at the World Bank and United Nations.

Later, he co-wrote Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World.

Mr Ghani fled Afghanistan on Sunday (Aug 15), and his whereabouts were a mystery before the United Arab Emirates announced three days later he and his family were in the Persian Gulf state "on humanitarian grounds".

The Russians claimed he left Afghanistan with four cars and a helicopter full of cash, something Mr Ghani denied in a video message released Wednesday.

In the country, he's become a villain: his central bank chief and key members of his administration have denounced him publicly. Efforts to reach him or his close aides were unsuccessful.

"I had to move out of Afghanistan to prevent Kabul from bloodshed and destruction," Mr Ghani said in the video, adding that he left quickly with no belongings after security officials warned him that Taleban fighters wanted to execute them in the same as former president Mohammad Najibullah, whose body was hanged from a traffic light by Taleban fighters in 1996.

"They were going room-to-room to find me," Mr Ghani said. "Their decision was this: Whatever happened 25 years ago was going to be repeated. The president of Afghanistan once again was going to be hanged in front of the people's eyes, and such a shameful history would have once again been repeated."

In many ways, Mr Ghani's swift downfall reflects the broader failures of the US to impose a government on Afghanistan that had buy-in from a range of competing power brokers with a long history of fighting on the battlefield rather than at the ballot box.

Although he was a Pashtun, the country's dominant ethnic group, Mr Ghani was seen as an outsider who lacked the political touch to unite disparate factions, and he became more isolated over time.

"Ghani was not accommodating of the realities of how Afghanistan works," said Mr Kabir Taneja, author of The ISIS Peril: The World's Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia and a fellow at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"He either didn't understand or couldn't understand the warlords, who are essentially people representing ethnic fault lines."

After the US invasion in 2001, Mr Ghani returned to Afghanistan for the first time in more than a quarter-century, and served for two years as finance minister in an administration led by Mr Hamid Karzai.

Afterwards, Mr Ghani became a darling of the international aid world, giving Ted Talks, penning op-eds in major newspapers and speaking at conferences.

At one point he was considered a candidate for UN secretary-general.

Following a failed bid for the presidency in 2009, Mr Ghani linked up with several prominent Afghan politicians - including influential warlord-turned-vice-president Abdul Rashid Dostum - to win the top job five years later.

But his victory was undermined from the start: Mr John Kerry, then America's top diplomat, flew to Kabul to broker a unity government that gave his main rival the position of "chief executive", a title that appears nowhere in Afghanistan's US-modelled constitution.

In 2017, Mr Ghani said he had "the worst job on earth" in an interview with the BBC.

Still, he claimed that Afghan security forces had turned a corner against the Taleban and coalition forces would be able to leave by 2021.

That turned out to be accurate, just not in the way he predicted.

President Donald Trump's administration started direct talks with the Taleban in a bid to end America's longest war, and shut Mr Ghani out of the process.

Then this year, after President Joe Biden set a withdrawal deadline for Aug 31, Ghani resisted calls to step aside and allow a transitional government to take power as the Taleban made military advances.

"Ghani pretended to be for peace, but in reality, he was in favour of war in order to remain in power even if it cost lives and pushed the Taleban to revert back to a military option," said Mr Omar Samad, former Afghan ambassador to Europe and fellow at Atlantic Council.

"The delay tactics ruined the chances for a deal that would have removed him from office but would have paved the way for a broad-based transition."

'I will not flee!'

A member of Taliban (center) stands outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug 16, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

As the Taleban descended on Kabul over the weekend, Mr Ghani told the people that he would avoid the fate of former king Amanullah Khan, who abdicated and fled to British India in 1929.

"I will not flee!" Ghani said at an event in Kabul on Aug 4, raising his voice loudly. "I won't seek safe haven and I will be at the service of people."

Yet as the Taleban blitzed across the country and marched to Kabul, Mr Ghani appeared increasingly isolated.

In a video released hours before he fled, Mr Ghani called for the Defence Ministry to set up telephone helplines for citizens to call.

After Mr Ghani fled, even his cabinet members were furious.


"They tied our hands behind our backs and sold off the country," Mr Bismillah Mohammadi, Afghanistan's acting Defence Minister, said on Twitter after Mr Ghani fled.

"Damn to Ghani and his team."

In the video message on Wednesday, Mr Ghani said he had been planning to negotiate with the Taleban to have a peaceful transfer of power.

He called for an inclusive government and said he was in talks to return to Afghanistan.

A half destroyed poster of Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan president, in Kabul on Aug 18, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

With Mr Ghani out of the country, former president Karzai and other Afghan politicians are now leading discussions with the Taleban on setting up a new government.

One thing they'll easily agree on: Disdain for Mr Ghani.

"Ashraf Ghani has betrayed his own motherland, team and tribe," Abdul Haq Hamad, a member of the Taleban's media team, told Afghanistan's Tolo News.

"Such treason will always be remembered."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.