Top News

Is Afghanistan’s president too honest to rule?

It’s an old, and unfortunate, story. Someone from a Third World country obtains an education in a western university, works in global institutions, and returns to their home country after many years abroad.

Then, perhaps unable to stand up against its political culture, he becomes enmeshed in its politics of tribal rivalries, corruption and violence.

A recent example is Ashraf Ghani, now president of the ever-volatile political culture that is Afghanistan. An ethnic Pashtun from a prominent family, he is losing his struggle to maintain his reformist stance amid pressure from traditional Pashtun leaders, who still view power in ethnic terms.

In exasperation, he is being forced to revert to type, so much so that as far as his cosmopolitan past is concerned, to use the catch-phrase of a Servpro, an American restoration company, it’s “like it never even happened.”

In 1977, Ghani and his family left Afghanistan, and he didn’t live there again for a quarter century. At New York’s Ivy League Columbia University, he completed a dissertation in cultural anthropology.

Ghani taught at the University of California at Berkeley and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and in 1991 he became an anthropologist for the World Bank.

Following the defeat of the Taliban after 9/11, Ghani returned to Afghanistan, where he soon became Minister of Finance in the new administration of President Hamid Karzai.

He introduced anti-corruption measures and, established a centralized revenue system – thereby earning the ire of corrupt provincial warlords siphoning off money for their followers.

His critics derided him as a high-minded and arrogant micromanager and Karzai removed him in 2005. He ran against the president in the 2009 election and suffered a humiliating defeat in a rigged election.

In 2014, he ran again for president when term limits forced Karzai to step down. Ghani stopped wearing Western suits and started using his tribal name, Ahmadzai. In a run-off he beat Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister of mixed Tajik and Pashtun descent.

At first Abdullah claimed fraud, but after months of bitter wrangling, the two agreed to form a national unity government. It was the first peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan since 1901.

There have always been attempts to “modernize” the country. It’s a recurring pattern.

Amanullah, Afghanistan’s king from 1919 to 1929, oversaw the writing of a constitution, improved education, and encouraged freedoms for women. But he offended key elements of society, including the mullahs, and he was overthrown by tribal leaders.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, there was a semblance of a national government and relative stability.

The 1960s saw a brief era of modernity and democratic reform. Afghanistan built national roads and defended its borders. Afghan women attended Kabul University.

“I lived in Afghanistan when it was very governable, from 1964 to 1974,” remembered Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.

The country was almost self-sufficient in food and had a small yet thriving export trade in fruit, handicrafts, furs and gems. Today, Afghanistan imports much of its food and it produces very few commercial goods.

After becoming President, Ghani at first all but ignored the traditional politics of Afghanistan, involving tribal networks, patronage systems, and power brokers. He refused to meet with favor seekers.

In the following months, offended, many of them abandoned Ghani and some even switched their support to the Taliban. So Ghani has been forced to play by the old rules. He recently named a major power broker, Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, to the important position of chairman of the High Peace Council.

Ghani’s position remains precarious. Afghanistan’s neopatrimonial political system is one in which an office of power is used for personal uses and gains, as opposed to a strict division of the private and public spheres. It’s difficult to rule such a country by being a technocrat rather than a corrupt politician.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.


Recent Stories