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The man who lost Afghanistan Ghani tried to build a nation on books and a TED Talk

Ashraf Ghani thriving in the US Congress (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)


August 20, 2021   7 mins

If there was one family in Afghanistan who incarnated the hopes, illusions and failures of the last two decades there, it was the Ghanis.

Ashraf, the father, was the country’s last president. A trained anthropologist, he believed in books, and the power of the ideas within them to move the world. His wife, Rula, a student in Paris in 1968, said she believed in women. Mariam, their daughter, became a filmmaker — she believed in Art. Their son, Tarek, believed in his father. His two-decade career in American academia and philanthropy is an echo of Ashraf’s own cloudless trajectory through blue-chip universities, the World Bank and think tanks. It was a tribute.

For half a century, Afghanistan was simultaneously obscure and at the centre of world events. It had swallowed the fading comet tail of the USSR and absorbed the late afternoon light of American Empire. It had been a hideaway for renegades and a bazaar of ideologies. From Hippie free love to political Islamism, from Marxist-Leninism to market democracy — all had been hawked and bartered over in Afghanistan.

Whether it was itself a “real” country at all, or simply a vast outdoor laboratory worked by imperial meddlers and narco-criminals was hard to say. But every force and idea that acted on Afghanistan acted on the Ghanis too. They were both the victims of events and the instigators of them. They had been exiles, then leaders; they had been scattered across the globe and enthroned in Kabul. The family was Pashtun, and prominent, with a history of political influence. The Ghanis first left in 1977, as the communists began their takeover.

Ashraf Ghani fled again this week. Mariam posted about it — “I’m pretty burned out” — on Instagram from her home in New York. Tarek and Rula have so far remained silent. This time it was widely reported that Ashraf had attempted to upholster four cars and a helicopter with millions of stolen dollars. This was surely — hopefully — untrue, and not because the source was a Russian news agency.

By Afghan standards the Ghanis were not that corrupt. It was for other politicians to mainline America’s billions into lavish compounds, or to be apprehended in Dubai’s airport with $52 million in cash. Ashraf did not believe in money. He believed in books.

When he became President, in 2014, after a fraught and nervous election, he indulged his obsession. Like all Afghan presidents, Ghani moved to the Arg — a labyrinth of palaces within a 19th-century fortress in central Kabul. But unlike his predecessor, he immediately set about restoring the ruined royal library, with all its decaying antique volumes. His personal library was his most valuable asset, according to a New Yorker profile. He owned seven thousand books. Every day he woke up before the sun rose and read them under his favourite chinar tree. He would have taken his volumes, not cash, when he fled on Sunday, wouldn’t he?

Ghani didn’t just read books — he wrote them. With his collaborator, the British human rights lawyer Claire Lockhart, he published Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World (2008). “Novel strategies” were needed, they argued, to stabilise failed states that were contaminating “our fully globalised world” with anarchy.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, these chaotic zones were spreading. Ghani believed he had the ideas — a “sovereignty index” to be annually published by the UN, and a “citizens-based approach” to state-building — that could mop away the disorder. Fixing Failed States offered, according to a small review in Foreign Affairs, “a surprisingly hopeful vision”.

The vision was delivered as a TED talk in 2007. Ghani’s manner is cerebral, candid, impish, shrilly excitable — theory excites him. His voice is as squeaky as an old floorboard being stepped on. The TED stage suited a pedagogue like Ghani. It was not so different from the lecture halls and seminar rooms of John Hopkins, where he’d spent the 1980s teaching. He never looks uncomfortable.

America was comfortable enough for the Ghanis. It was their main chance, as it was for other exiled Afghans. It gave Ashraf, Rula and Tarek the opportunity to collect the academic prizes that are today’s proof of intelligence and moral worth. It allowed Mariam to transform herself from the child of exiles to an artist; not merely an artist working in “installation, performance, photography, text and video”, but, according to the Guggenheim Foundation, an “activist, archivist, writer and lecturer”.

A 2015 New York Times profile found Mariam in her loft apartment in Clinton Hill, worrying about being “a Brooklyn cliche”. The Times sketched her “as well-versed in the politics of extraordinary rendition as she is in the very Brooklyn pursuit of homemade chile-passion-fruit sorbet”.

Mariam’s work was exhibited at Tate Modern in London, and the Guggenheim and MOMA in New York. One exhibit, “Afghanistan: A Lexicon”, was made in collaboration with Ashraf over Skype. Over 72 panels of text and photos created by the Ghanis, the history of Afghanistan is shown to be cyclical — an endless rotation of invasion, revolt, reform, collapse and recovery. A country cruelly frozen in dynamism.

She made films about the discovery of oil in Norway, and the melancholy difficulties of translation. She was born in New York, but identified “most with the border”. What Edward Said called the “essential sadness” of exile was there in Mariam, and in all her family. Perhaps that’s why the “Lexicon” had one telling absence from its story — the Ghanis themselves.

Ashraf had returned to the country with Rula in 2002 almost as soon as the Taliban were banished. First a finance minister under Hamid Karzai, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 2009, and then the winner of that disputed election in 2014.

Afghanistan was a problem for the family in a way that America — where they had flourished — was not. America only needed Ashraf’s theories in the classroom. Afghanistan, Ashraf believed, could be saved by his theories. It was all in his book, and his TED talk. Opium farmers would make t-shirts. Embroiders in Kandahar would partner with Versace. Guns would become ploughshares. One day the daughters of Afghanistan would be like his own, free to study in America; free to make jam in Brooklyn; free to exhibit their work in Berlin.

Afghans were not fools. They only needed jobs. The people, Ghani said in 2005, were internationalist by temperament — “they’re much more sophisticated than rural Americans with college degrees and the bulk of Europeans.” Well, perhaps.

Becoming President gave Ghani the chance to govern the country that shone in his mind. Afghans would learn about sheep raising from New Zealand, and hydroelectricity from the Swiss. Afghanistan was a blank slate. Ghani began to doodle his beautiful diagrams on it.

Sigmund Freud once said there were two “impossible professions”: education and government. Ghani was a wonderful educator. He proved to be an impossible President. He micromanaged his illusions and his staff. He took anger management classes.

Why was he so angry? Was it the pressure — grinding and invidious — of watching his theories of the state become exposed as just another exile’s hopeless fictions?

Either way, he grew ever more solitary behind the blast walls, barbed wire, and checkpoints of the Arg. The library was his succour and support — one journalist described Ghani’s office, filled with open books on every surface, marked neatly with pencil annotations. This is what most intellectuals (quite rightly) do in a crisis. They retreat, like Michel de Montaigne did during the 16th century French wars of religion, to brood in their towers and libraries, hoping that solitude will yield new ideas. Montaigne, though, only advised the king of France, he had no pretensions to power itself; Ghani was supposed to be something like the king of Afghanistan.

At least, as everyone said, he was not corrupt. That was a blessing in a country where the MPs alone ritualistically stole over a billion dollars a year. But there was the rest of the family. Ashraf’s brother, Hashmat, and his nephew Sultan.

Hashmat will be remembered, not for driving a bulletproof Mercedes Limousine, or the 23,000 square feet of his Kabul home, but for the SOSi scandal. It was extraordinarily complicated; it involved hugely valuable rights to mineral deposits in Kunar province, illegal links between US special forces and militias — and the Ghani family. It was Hashmat who owned significant shares in the US company that wanted to buy the rights to the minerals, and it was President Ghani who signed off on the deal. Was it corrupt? “If there was a colour redder than red, that’s what colour this red flag would be,” said one American expert in procurement law.

Sultan, meanwhile, styled himself the President of ‘The Ghani Group’ on LinkedIn, and the co-founder of ‘The Institute for Afghan Women’ on his website.  As the country started to tremble a few weeks ago, he shared photos of himself on Instagram walking towards a Learjet 75 Liberty.

Ashraf had promised to clean up grift when he first ran for President, but if it flourished in his immediate family, what hope did Afghanistan have?

When Ghani fled on Sunday he left behind half the population in poverty, a third of the population facing emergency levels of food insecurity, stagnant GDP, a massive trade deficit, a restive and furious countryside, and, in the words of one report, “a largely lawless, weak, and dysfunctional state”. Now the Taliban control it, down to the very last bumper car.

A few days before, Mariam Ghani’s latest film had its theatrical release in the United States. It’s title? What We Left Unfinished. For Ashraf — intellectual and politician, then, at last, a corrupted idealist — it was all unfinished.

How shocked, how distressed he looked, when he surfaced this week in the UAE, exiled once more. When his security team extracted him, he said, he was “in a condition where I couldn’t even put on my shoes”. Did Ashraf Ghani realise that the things he put his faith in, the codes by which he lived his life — ideas and books, globalisation and rational governance — had been diminished? That if the reports were true, and he really had left the country, not with his library, but with $169 million dollars, that he had maimed his life’s work, as well as Afghanistan?

Maybe he knew. All year, until almost the very end, he had promised his army could hold out against the Taliban, “forever“. But there was lucidity amidst the delusion.

“The future will be determined by the people of Afghanistan,” he told the BBC in February, “not by somebody sitting behind the desk, dreaming.”

He was wrong about the people of Afghanistan. Whether they stayed or fled, they would still be dragged into the conflicts of others. But he was right about the dreamer behind the desk. Ashraf Ghani, unable to determine Afghanistan’s future, was describing himself.


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Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
2 years ago

In November 2015 Ashraf Ghani gave a speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, where I used to work. In that environment he was very impressive: witty, assured, quite in his element. He knew how to talk to our students and larded his replies to their questions with references to Foucault and other theorists. Despite the invoking of Foucault I warmed to him – but then I am also an academic, and in the past have used some of Ghani’s articles on 19th-century Afghanistan (which are good scholarship). Even then though I did wonder if this urbane character was really the person to lead Afghanistan out of the morass. I think academics very rarely make good leaders, not least because they are often paralysed by their awareness of complexity. In the case of Afghanistan its most successful leaders – Ahmad Shah Abdali, who founded the Durrani dynasty and the Afghan state in the late 18th century, and ‘Abdurrahman Khan, who conquered Nuristan and the regions north of the Hindu Kush in the 1880s, were both ruthless, brutal, hard-nosed men of action. Times have changed of course, but Afghanistan is if anything more ungovernable now than it was then, after forty years of war. Horrible as the Taliban are, it doesn’t sound as if Ghani’s regime deserved to survive in its current form.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

I know a few fairly ruthless academic leaders (VCs, registrars, etc.) whom I would gladly send to Afghanistan.

Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
2 years ago

Oh so do I! But I think we can agree that while it might be to our benefit and to theirs, it’s hard to argue that it would do the Afghans any good.

Graeme Cant
Graeme Cant
2 years ago

Possibly …but I doubt Afghanistan would gladly receive them.
It’s probably had enough of Western academics. Besides, if you’re an academic, your idea of ruthless and the Taliban’s are very diifferent.

Last edited 2 years ago by Graeme Cant
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

The whole story reads like so many written during the Raj of Native leaders falling for Bitishisms and Western Liberalisms, becoming this simulacrum of the British Gentleman, More British than the British intellectually, and then ending just as Ghani, because somehow it can result in worst of both worlds rather than best of both worlds when actually put into practice on the native peoples.

This story has played out a great many times in the last 150 years. Knowing too much of every side does not make for better decision making as one is too close to the subject to be objective, and every decision has to be made for one view, and opposing the other, and that is hard if you have gone Native in Both Worlds. Even harder if a greater sympathy for the Western Liberalism, than for the Native sensibilities, is dominate. This is actually an archetype, the leader taken from his society and trained in the other, and then returned to lead. The Romans were always up to this, but then Rome was hardly Liberal, so so not as conflicting to the new leadership.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

This is a quite informative comment. Thank you, Alex, for posting it.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Wonderful journalism.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

So beautifully written with a very dry humour. I read on although I have zero interest in Ghani.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

“
 free to exhibit their work in Berlin.”

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

I read it this morning and wanted to say the same thing. I know nothing about Afghanistan’s ex president, but this article is written using truly marvellous prose. A real treat to read.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Unherd is lucky to have such a writer.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago

That story about the helicopter full of cash sounds really funny.
But I will only believe it is true if the NYT refuses to cover it, Twitter bans anyone who mentions it and Snopes publishes a report stating it was “mostly false”

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Anybody who has ever seen a few million in $20 bills will attest the bag size. The story of $100M+ in bags is likely nonsense. Perhaps he had several helicopters in convoy. ,

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago

Ghani was never going to rule, let alone change, Afghanistan. The simmering cauldrons of sectarian, tribal ethnic etc inter-communal strife that are the states, regions, and communities across Africa, the ME, and much of Asia can only be controlled by ruthless, hard-nosed, b’tards. The worst of these are religiously fanatical ruthless, hard-nosed b’tards, because their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours are impervious to reason, evidence, or reality. Israel is the only developed state, apart from China, itself run by R H-N Bs, which recognises this. Until the rest of us do, there’s no point in getting involved in future, or ongoing, conflicts.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“Ashraf had promised to clean up grift when he first ran for President, but if it flourished in his immediate family, what hope did Afghanistan have?”

We also know this story… $500,000 for some paint blown out of a straw by the President’s addict Son anyone? Need some Lobbying? Biden’s Brother can get stuff done.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

The fool on the hill, a tragic dreamer, like me. . . it was a nice ride, thanks to the yanks and our hi-tech protective devices, while it lasted. Thank you, Will, for writing this unherd-of portrait of a contemporary harmlet . . . alas, poor Ghani, we wish we’d known him better.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“
, a student in Paris in 1968, 
”. That sounds nice.
What if “A student in Kabul in 1968”? That would sound not too bad either. You know, say, a young lady, a student in Kabul in ‘68.

Mark Griffin
Mark Griffin
2 years ago

Wonderfully informative article. Thank you!

jack hayward
jack hayward
2 years ago

In reply to Sanford Artzen the EIC and Raj policy was to militarily defeat and get out of Afghanistan asap. The memory of Gandamack ran deep.

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
2 years ago

Ghani did something worse than all these things.
Ghani was rude.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Interesting

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B