© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani looks on during a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, during a surprise visit at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, November 28, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
KABUL (Reuters) – Ashraf Ghani, who left Afghanistan on Sunday following the Taliban’s rapid advance through the country and into Kabul, was twice elected Afghan president, as well as being one of the country’s best-known academics.
President Ghani left the country hours after the Taliban entered the capital, government officials said. It was not yet clear where he was headed, or how power would be transferred.
First elected president in 2014, Ghani took over from Hamid Karzai, who led Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and oversaw the conclusion of the U.S. combat mission, the near-complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country, as well as a fractious peace process with the insurgent Taliban.
He made the effort to end decades of war his top priority, despite continuing attacks on his government and security forces by the Taliban, and began peace talks with the insurgents in the Qatari capital of Doha in 2020.
However, Ghani, known for his quick temper alongside his deep thinking, was never accepted by the Taliban and peace talks made little headway.
Foreign governments were frustrated by the slow progress of talks, and calls grew for an interim government to replace his administration.
During his presidency, he managed to appoint a new generation of young, educated Afghans into leadership positions at a time the country’s power corridors were occupied by a handful of elite figures and patronage networks.
He promised to fight rampant corruption, fix a crippled economy and transform the country into a regional trade hub between Central and South Asia – but was unable to deliver on most of these promises.
A U.S.-trained anthropologist, Ghani holds a doctorate from New York City’s Columbia University and was named one of the “World’s Top 100 Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy magazine in 2010.
His road to the presidency was hard-fought.
He spent almost a quarter of century outside Afghanistan during the tumultuous decades of Soviet rule, civil war and the Taliban years in power.
During that period, he worked as an academic in the United States and later with the World Bank and the United Nations across East and South Asia.
Within months of the events of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, he resigned from his international posts and returned to Kabul to become a senior advisor to newly-appointed President Karzai.
He served as Afghan finance minister in 2002, but fell out with Karzai, and, in 2004, was appointed chancellor of Kabul University, where he was seen as an effective reformer as well as forming a Washington-based thinktank that worked on policies to empower some of the world’s most impoverished people.
In 2009, Ghani, who belongs to Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun ethnicity like Karzai, ran for president but came in fourth, securing about 4% of the national vote.
He continued to work in important roles in Afghanistan, including as Afghanistan’s “transition czar”, chairing a body overseeing security transition from NATO to Afghans.
With Karzai barred by the Afghan constitution from standing for a third time, Ghani mounted a successful second campaign in 2014. He was re-elected in 2019.
His relationship with Washington and other Western capitals was uneasy.
He was a vocal critic of what he termed wasted international aid in Afghanistan and often did not see eye to eye with the West’s Afghan strategy, particularly as they looked to fast-track a slow and painful peace process with the Taliban.
In an interview with the BBC, Ghani said: “the future will be determined by the people of Afghanistan, not by somebody sitting behind the desk, dreaming”.