The two men vying to become Afghanistan’s next president have revealed little about how they might govern. Both have suggested the need for continued American financial and military support. Both have spoken vaguely about uniting the nation.
But in the absence of concrete platforms, Afghans are looking closely at the biographies of Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, speculating about what their lives say about their ability to lead. Afghan politicians are still judged to a large extent by their roles in the nation’s recent history, particularly the anti-Soviet uprising of the 1980s.
At that time, Abdullah was an aide to the mujahideen leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a relationship he advertises in speeches and campaign posters.
Ghani, on the other hand, was launching an impressive academic career that led to professorships as well as World Bank positions.
From those experiences, their supporters and detractors have drawn conclusions. Abdullah is seen either as a patriotic war hero, willing to die for his country, or a representative of old-school Afghan politics, based in muscle rather than policy. Ghani is seen as a well-educated reformer, or a Western intellectual without deep Afghan roots.
Orbiting around those identities are questions about ethnicity, political alliances and corruption – all key issues in Afghanistan. But increasingly the election appears to have become a referendum on the kind of résumé Afghans want their next leader to have – one that speaks to their wartime mettle or intellectual pedigree.
Who is Abdullah Abdullah?
Abdullah Abdullah, 53, was born in Kabul, and is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity. He is seen as a natural leader within the Tajik community because of his experience in the anti-Soviet Northern Alliance. He is an ophthalmologist and was initially recruited as a battlefield medic.
After 2001, Abdullah became foreign minister under President Hamid Karzai. He later became Karzai’s most important opponent, coming in second in the initial round of the 2009 presidential election. He then dropped out of the runoff amid allegations of fraud. Abdullah won 45 percent of the vote in the first round this year.
Abullah has surprised many Afghans by wooing key Pashtun leaders to his side, including former mujahideen commander Gul Agha Sherzai and tribal elder Sher Mohammad Akhundzada.
Who is Ashraf Ghani?
Ashraf Ghani, 65, was born in eastern Logar Province. After graduating from high school in Kabul, he attended the American University of Beirut and then Columbia University, where he earned a PhD in anthropology. He taught at Johns Hopkins University and worked for years at the World Bank.
Ghani returned to Kabul in 2001 as an adviser to the United Nations, later becoming finance minster and chancellor of Kabul University. He ran for president in 2009, but gained only a tiny fraction of the vote. He performed much better this year, earning 31.6 percent in the first round.
Ghani is of Pashtun descent and boosted his support in the north by recruiting Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum to be his vice-presidential candidate.