Ashraf Ghani’s time as leader of Afghanistan seemed doomed to fail from the start, beginning with a hotly disputed election and ending with a helicopter ride out of his Kabul palace as the Taliban took the capital.
The tenure of the professor and “technocrat,” whose family has Washington, D.C., insider and Democratic connections, was plagued by an Afghan rival who refused to admit defeat in back-to-back elections, a United States looking for the exit, a relentless effort by the Taliban to return to power, and a personal background seemingly ill-suited for the job.
Ghani was born in what was Afghanistan in 1949 and went to Lake Oswego High School in Oregon as an exchange student before attending the American University in Beirut and Columbia University. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and Ghani ended up working as a professor at the University of California Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s before joining the World Bank in 1991.
He returned to Afghanistan in December 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and U.S. invasion and worked as an adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai before becoming finance minister. He failed at succeeding Kofi Annan as the U.N. Secretary-General in 2006.
Ghani gave a Ted Talk titled “How to Rebuild a Broken State” in 2005, founded the Institute for State Effectiveness, wrote a 2008 book on Fixing Failed States, and was named to Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list in 2010.
In 2009, he renounced his U.S. citizenship to run for president of Afghanistan but could only muster a fourth-place finish despite being advised by longtime Democratic strategist James Carville.
He decided to run again in 2014, with a New York Times headline declaring: “Technocrat to Afghan Populist, Ashraf Ghani Is Transformed.”
His rival Abdullah Abdullah had nearly 1 million more votes in the first round but didn’t get to 50%, but Ghani prevailed in a runoff despite allegations of fraud and intervention from then-Secretary of State John Kerry. Ghani formed a troubled unity government with Abdullah as “CEO.” After Ghani’s reelection, Abdullah again refused to accept the results, setting up a parallel government and holding his own inauguration ceremony in early 2020 instead.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan was facing the prospect of a resurgent Taliban.
A February 2020 peace deal signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban pushed the Afghan government to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, some of whom played key roles in the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country in 2021.
The power struggle between Ghani and Abdullah frustrated the U.S., especially as the Trump administration tried to push the Afghan government into talks with the Taliban. Ghani was asked in June 2020 if he would be willing to step aside to allow for an interim government, and he replied, “I serve at the will of the Afghan people, not at the will of the Taliban.”
The Taliban tried to push Ghani out of office in January, but Ghani said, “This [presidency] is not mine. This seat belongs to the nation of Afghanistan. … My basic goal is to be able to hand power, through the will of the people, to my elected successor.”
During a White House meeting in June, Biden said, “There’s going to be a — and the senseless violence that has to stop, but it’s going to be very difficult. But we’re going to stick with you. And we’re going to do our best to see to it you have the tools you need.”
Ghani paid tribute to the U.S. service members who had been killed in the country and added, “The Afghan nation is in [an] 1861 moment, like President Lincoln, rallying to the defense of the republic, determined that the republic is defended.”
The Washington Post reported that “even as Taliban attacks intensified in rural Afghanistan and provincial capitals, Ghani’s confidence remained unshaken” and quoted him as allegedly saying, “We’re fighting there so we don’t have to fight here.”
In a July 23 call leaked to Reuters, Biden said Ghani needed to come up with a military plan to push back the Taliban, telling him: “The perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban. And there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”
Ghani told Biden: “We are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning, and logistical support, and at least [10,000] to 15,000 international terrorists, predominantly Pakistanis thrown into this.”
On Aug. 2, the Afghan president said that “we have had an unexpected situation in the last three months” and blamed the rapid Taliban advance on the “sudden” decision by the U.S. to pull its troops out,
Two weeks later, Kabul fell, and Ghani took a helicopter out of trouble. Speaking from the United Arab Emirates, he denied rumors that he fled with suitcases stuffed with money.
After Kabul fell, Ghani said: “I could’ve stayed and started a war, but I had a responsibility to my people, and I didn’t want to start a bloodbath like in Syria and Yemen,” he said.
His sudden departure seemingly caught the U.S. off guard.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke to Ghani the day before Kabul fell when the Afghan president told him his intent was to “fight to the death.”
“The next day, he was gone.”