Former Hopkins professor eyes Afghan presidency

These days, his Western business suits and ties have given way to Afghan turbans and tunics. Instead of anthropology students and fellow faculty members at the Johns Hopkins University, tribal elders and international aid officials are more likely to seek his ear.

Also left behind is the inviting stucco home overlooking a stream in Roland Park for one in Kabul with walls fortified against explosions and protected by armed guards — with good reason.


"That hospital is 300 meters from my house," Ashraf Ghani said by phone this week, on a day when three American doctors were killed in an attack at a Cure International Hospital. "My late mother used to be there. It is a remarkable group of people there. It's just terrible."

The man who would be the next president of Afghanistan leads a vastly different life than he did as an anthropology professor in Baltimore, which he left in 1991 first for the World Bank and then for the immense challenges of rebuilding and serving as finance minister of his war-battered homeland.


Preliminary results released Saturday show Ghani, 64, running second with 32 percent of the vote to former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, with 45 percent, among 11 candidates — although officials are investigating fraud complaints and contested ballots before certifying the race — and a runoff election between the two front-runners, required if no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, is likely as early as May 28.

While Ghani looks back fondly at his time here — the heady intellectual climate on campus, the warm neighborhood where he and his wife raised two children — he gave it up without hesitation.

"My country needed me," he says simply. "You don't feel it's a sacrifice, but that it's a calling."

The country's needs loom large, with U.S.-led troops scheduled to pull out this year and Afghanistan facing its first transfer of presidential power since Hamid Karzai took office as the country's first democratically elected head of state in 2004.

Ghani said he expects to emerge victorious over Abdullah. In the meantime, there is much intrigue over possible coalitions forming in advance of the runoff, although Ghani said he wants no part of that.

"I am not a deal-maker," Ghani said. "When millions of people vote for you, it is an incredible, sacred trust."

Win or lose, it has already been a remarkable journey — for both Ghani and Afghanistan, where the April 5 election drew long, enthusiastic lines of voters despite Taliban insurgent threats to disrupt the polling.

"It was an act of courage," said Shabana Basij-Rasikh, 24, an Afghan educator who was in Baltimore recently to receive an award from the student-run Foreign Affairs Symposium at Hopkins. "That act of courage is indicative of people's desire for change."


For many, those hopes lie in the candidacy of Ghani, who since returning to Afghanistan in 2002 has been key to its reconstruction. He replaced its unworkable currency, for example, and implemented a community-directed redevelopment program that funneled billions of dollars in foreign aid into the building of schools, roads, power plants and other basic infrastructure.

'He's really brilliant'

Exiled first by the communist revolution and Soviet invasion in the late 1970s, then by the Taliban takeover in the 1990s, Ghani was hired at Hopkins as a freshly minted Ph.D. in 1983.

"He's really brilliant," said Niloofar Haeri, who chairs the Hopkins anthropology department. "He's one of the very few people I can use that adjective for without reservation.

"In some ways, he's quite intimidating for some people because he's so no-nonsense. Some people have found him a bit impatient. But I always learned from him."

The sting of his impatience was usually felt by students who failed to live up to his high standards, said Sidney Mintz, who with two former Yale professors started the Hopkins anthropology department in the mid-1970s. Mintz said he always felt Ghani preferred the back-and-forth with other professors.


"He liked very much the discourse with his colleagues, listening to people present their papers," Mintz said. "I remember when he'd read something of mine he would always have insights."

The city still holds a special place for Ghani.

"Our children were 2 and 5 years old when we came to Baltimore," he said of his son, Tarek, and daughter, Mariam. "That's where they grew up."

He and his wife, Rula, whom he met while attending the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, plunged into the social life of the Hopkins campus and their neighborhood.

"We treasured them," said Margaret Wright, a retired garden designer, of the family that lived two doors away on Wilmslow Road. "He's so intelligent and so kind — all of them were. I remember when they first moved in ... my husband was outside and doing some yardwork, and this little boy comes over and says, 'If you're lonesome, I'll be your friend.' "

Tarek Ghani, a graduate of Stanford and a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, has worked as an assistant to his father in Afghanistan; Mariam Ghani graduated from New York University and the School of Visual Arts and is a Brooklyn-based artist and teacher.


Unusually enough for the native of landlocked Afghanistan, Ghani picked up a taste in Baltimore for the local crustaceans, a friend remembers.

"He liked going out for crabs," said fellow World Bank alum Scott Guggenheim, laughing at the memory of "this debonair, elegant man" wrist-deep in the ensuing detritus. "He loved the crabs."

The road back

If Baltimore was a long way from his birthplace, it was here that Ghani developed a friendship that ultimately led him back to Afghanistan.

As he told The Baltimore Sun in 2002, he happened to go to the Helmand, the Afghan restaurant on Charles Street, in 1990, the year after it opened. There, he met owner Qayum Karzai, whose brother Hamid would become their country's first post-Taliban president.

Their meeting became an oft-told story for Ghani, according to former colleagues. He quizzed Qayum Karzai, each answer narrowing— from region to valley to village — where in Afghanistan the restaurateur was from, said Katherine Verdery, a former Hopkins anthropology professor now at the City University of New York.


"And then Karzai said, "And you must be Ashraf Ghani,' " Verdery remembers the story.

Qayum Karzai would ultimately introduce Ghani to his brother, leading the professor to become an influential adviser to the president he now hopes to replace.

At one point, Qayum Karzai was a presidential candidate — although he dropped out last month to support former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, widely viewed as the term-limited Hamid Karzai's choice as successor.

"It boils down to 'Game of Thrones' now," Guggenheim said. "What deals can you cut, who can you stab in the back?"

Guggenheim and Ghani met as doctoral candidates in anthropology, the former at Hopkins and the latter at Columbia. After becoming finance minister in 2002, Ghani asked Guggenheim to come to Afghanistan to help him develop a block-grant, community-run redevelopment program based on one his friend had implemented successfully in Indonesia.

"The country was a wreck," Guggenheim said by phone from Jakarta. "I remember our plane screeched to a halt because there was an unexploded bomb at the end of the runway."


And yet, he said, Ghani clearly was energized by the challenge posed by his broken country, where he could translate what had been academic interests — how states form and how failed ones can be fixed — into reality.

Guggenheim was not surprised Ghani that left academia. "Was his life going to be cocktail parties and articles that no one would read? He has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel tells him to start a think tank to train young people, to give them the kind of education he had. But the devil says, 'Go into politics.' And the devil always wins."

Ghani's former colleagues say Afghanistan is lucky to have him. They describe him as inordinately smart and engaged, with a dry wit.

Haeri remembers how Ghani threw her off-balance when he and other professors interviewed her in 1990 for a position as an instructor in the department. A linguist who had done field work in Egypt, she was asked how the language system there compared to that of ... China.

"He said, 'I wanted to see if you could think on your feet,' " Haeri recalled. "This became a joke for us — anything out of the blue, we would say, 'What about China?' "

Despite the adage that the politics in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low, Mintz said the Hopkins department was quite congenial, with members gathering frequently for dinners and celebrations — often at the Helmand.


Haeri remembers a birthday party for Mintz at which Ghani made a toast that played off of his colleague's most famous book, which explores how sugar contributed to slavery, industrialization and war.

"Sid was sitting next to his wife, and Ashraf said, 'Here we have "Sweetness and Power," ' " Haeri said, referring to the title of the 1985 book. (As to which spouse was which, Mintz said, "I'm not very sweet.")

Haeri, who is from Iran, said she understood Ghani's decision to return to his homeland.

"You might very much like Baltimore — and he did — and have a nice house," Haeri said. "But there's a sense of nomadism. Even after years and years, there is something temporary about it.

"He thought, 'Here is a country in great trouble. How can I not go back and try to help?' "

Still, his colleagues worry about him, given the continuing threats of violence from Taliban insurgents as well as his own health as a cancer survivor.


Ghani credits Verdery with saving his life: He was headed to Hungary and, knowing her expertise in Eastern Europe, asked her where he should eat. "Gundel's," she said, naming a famous Budapest restaurant, "and have the chocolate pancakes for dessert."

He did, but it sent him to the hospital in distress, Verdery said. Tests led to the cancer's discovery, and ultimately surgery to remove part of his stomach. Ghani said he is in good health these days, having modified his diet after discovering an allergy to gluten.

His friends largely stay in touch by email, keeping him up to date on their research and families. To which they'll get responses like, "I'm here charting the future course of Afghanistan," Haeri said.

Guggenheim said his friend is convinced he'll win the election, which he jokes will make him totally "unbearable. They won't be able to make a shirt big enough to get over his head."

This is actually Ghani's second run for the presidency. He hired President Bill Clinton's campaign guru, James Carville, for the 2009 race but received only 3 percent of the vote.

This year, Ghani drew controversy when he picked as a running mate Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord accused of human rights abuses over the years. But Dostum — who has played down his tactics during the nation's years of fighting — was expected to bring to the ticket the support of his fellow Uzbeks, who make up 9 percent of the population. Ghani has said his aim is to unify and reconcile the long-fractured country.


Observers point to the recent, relatively peaceful election as another step forward in Afghanistan's long recovery.

"Both of the leading candidates have done credit to the country by a process that is dignified and serious," said C. Frederick Starr, a research professor at Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "It's an enormous gift to the country."

Starr, who has written extensively about Afghanistan, said that regardless of the election outcome, Ghani's role in his country's currency and reconstruction efforts already has put the country on a positive path.

"If his career stopped there," Starr said, "he would still have a place in the history books."


Ashraf Ghani

Family: Wife, Rula; daughter, Mariam; son, Tarek

Education: American University of Beirut; masters and Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University

Career: Professor of Afghan studies and anthropology, Kabul University, 1974-1977; professor of anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1983; and Johns Hopkins University, 1983-1991

Lead anthropologist, World Bank 1991-2001

Other positions include: Adviser to U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan; finance minister of Afghanistan (2002-2004); chancellor of Kabul University