KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The former American academic took the stage in a black turban, praising his Pashtun forefathers. Ashraf Ghani used to be one of the most prominent Afghan professionals in the United States. But now, as he runs for president of Afghanistan, he shrugs off his time as a World Bank executive and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“I learned English only so I could satisfy the foreigners and defend our national interests,” Ghani told the sprawling Afghan meeting hall one recent afternoon. The crowd cheered.
When he speaks at East Coast think tanks or to Western journalists, the 65-year-old politician is quick to cite Franklin D. Roosevelt or philosophers such as Max Weber. But it’s people such as these in the audience in southern Afghanistan — most of them illiterate — who will ultimately decide whether he wins the presidency. Ghani roared at the crowd from the lectern, knocking down a row of microphones as he gesticulated. The staid World Bank official had disappeared.
The victor in Saturday’s national election will assume power at a critical moment here — as Western troops withdraw and citizens wait to see whether the country is headed for reform or a descent into chaos.
During a 2009 campaign, many deemed Ghani too Americanized and too academic to win the presidency in a country where tribal bona fides and war heroics are more significant than Ivy League PhDs. Those critics were proved right — Ghani won only 2.9 percent of the vote.
But entering Saturday’s runoff election, Ghani has managed to draw support from across Afghanistan. In the first round of balloting, he won 31.5 percent of the vote, behind Abdullah Abdullah’s 44.5 percent. Now, Afghan voters will have to decide whether Ghani’s civilian credentials are more valuable than his competitor’s background.
Abdullah’s rallies are full of cries of “Long live the mujahideen,” referring to the Afghan force that drove out the occupying Soviet army in the 1980s. Abdullah was a top aide to the iconic former rebel leader Ahmed Shah Massoud and went on to become foreign minister.
Neither candidate has presented much in policy specifics, but both support signing a security agreement that would permit U.S. troops to remain here after 2014.
A slew of Afghan power brokers, including some who had been expected to back Ghani, have recently joined Abdullah’s team. Ghani plays down the importance of the shift, saying, “None of them have much influence.”
Despite Abdullah’s growing momentum, Ghani has continued a grueling campaign of 12-hour days. He has played up his management experience and what he says is his ability to facilitate the flow of foreign aid to this country. But he is also focusing far more than he did in 2009 on wooing men who wield traditional power within their ethnic and tribal groups.
Ghani was born to an influential family in eastern Logar province. He grew up in Kabul and attended high school there before leaving to attend the American University of Beirut. He later earned a PhD in anthropology at Columbia University in New York.
After more than two decades in the United States, including a stint leading country strategy at the World Bank, he returned to Afghanistan in 2001 as an adviser to the United Nations and then became finance minister. He has since given up his U.S. citizenship.
Ghani’s campaign reflects how much he has learned from his failure in 2009. Over the past five years, Ghani has crisscrossed Afghanistan as the manager of the country’s security transition — the process by which Afghan security forces inherited responsibility from U.S. and allied troops. That has endowed him with the kind of name recognition he did not have as finance minister, he says.
Now, he peppers his speeches with references specific to each province. He knows where there are mineral deposits that could be extracted, fruit that could be exported, schools that must be reopened.
“My job is to serve as a translator between my people and the world,” he said in an interview. “I’ve had to navigate these worlds . . . to reconcile what is seemingly irreconcilable.”
In 2009, Ghani recruited Democratic strategist James Carville to help manage his campaign, a move that did not improve his image as a man without deep Afghan roots. This time, his team is full of young, Western-educated Afghans who update his Twitter and Facebook feeds.
But Ghani has learned that political success means playing by Afghan rules. In March, he chose Abdurrashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord suspected of human rights abuses, as his running mate. Five years earlier, Ghani called Dostum “a known killer.” Dostum, however, could bring in thousands of ethnic Uzbek votes — and Ghani found a way to justify his inclusion on the ticket.
“General Dostum is accepted as a charismatic leader by a significant number of my countrymen and countrywomen,” Ghani said in an earlier interview. “It’s out of respect for their belief in him that we’ve joined forces.”
At rallies in Afghanistan’s north, where Dostum is hugely popular, he is often treated as if he is the one running for president. But when Ghani recently visited Kandahar, in the south, the warlord was conspicuously absent.
Instead, Ghani traveled with Hashmat and Hekmat Karzai, cousins of President Hamid Karzai, whose political base is in Kandahar. A group of influential tribal elders joined them. Ghani has appealed to those who like him not only for his policies but also his ethnicity. He is a Pashtun, part of what is believed to be the country’s most populous group, although no census has been conducted in Afghanistan for years.
Ghani does not make specific references to ethnicity — still a delicate issue in Afghanistan after the civil war of the 1990s — but in Kandahar, he made repeated mention of Ahmad Shah Durrani and Mirwais Khan Hotak, prominent Pashtuns from the 17th and 18th centuries who played crucial roles in Afghanistan’s formation.
“I support him [Ghani] because he will unite all Pashtuns and there will be no insecurity,” said Rahmatullah, a farmer from the Dand district in Kandahar.
Abdullah’s father was Pashtun, but many in Kandahar see him as a Tajik, like his mother.
Ghani says his campaign has been hampered by top police commanders who have actively campaigned for Abdullah and in some cases resorted to fraud to sway the results in the first round. He points to officials in Ghowr and Balkh provinces in particular as using their clout to influence the election results.
“It’s a systematic bias,” he said. If the results are widely questioned, it could cause significant strife between the two camps and raise tensions in Afghanistan.
Years ago, Ghani wrote about the problems facing the world’s least developed, most fractured nations in a book called “Fixing Failed States.” Ghani does not mention that book on the campaign trail. But if he wins, he may be able to translate the theory from his past life into the reality of his current one.