Updated: August 17, 2021 1:11:40 pm
Written by: Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Nossiter
Western technocrat. Would-be populist. Wartime president. Ashraf Ghani tried to inhabit many roles during his years as Afghanistan’s president.
But after fleeing the Taliban’s advance into Kabul this weekend, Ghani — wherever he is — is stepping into a far less welcome role: that of a failed leader whose hasty escape from Kabul scuttled negotiations to ensure a smooth transition of power to the Taliban and left his own people to deal with the deadly chaos and frightening uncertainty under the country’s once and future rulers.
As of Monday, it was not even clear where Ghani was or would end up living. Close aides could not be reached by phone. Some reports suggested that he had gone to neighbouring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan or perhaps even Oman. There was talk that Saudi Arabia had agreed to give him asylum, and rumours that he had been accompanied by as many as 200 aides, ministers and Parliament members.
The fallout was swift, as what semblance of civil government that was left in Kabul melted away and thousands of Afghans stormed through Kabul’s international airport — the city’s sole connection to the outside world — desperate to find a way out. But unlike Ghani, almost all of them had no chance of getting out, and several people died in the chaos.
Ghani, 72, defended his decision to bolt in a social media post late on Sunday, writing from an undisclosed location that, “If I had stayed, countless of my countrymen would be martyred and Kabul would face destruction.”
Others, though, condemned his flight as a desperate act of self-preservation by a man whose failures had paved the way for the Taliban’s return nearly 20 years to the month after the US-led invasion that led to their ouster after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“He will be known as the Benedict Arnold of Afghanistan. People will be spitting on his grave for another 100 years,” said Saad Mohseni, who owns one of Afghanistan’s most popular television stations, Tolo TV.
Mohseni was part of a last-ditch effort to save Kabul from a violent and bloody takeover by the Taliban, working with former president Hamid Karzai and others to negotiate an interim arrangement that would give the Taliban a week or two to take the reins of Afghanistan’s government.
The effort collapsed once word got out that Ghani had fled, whereupon the Taliban began moving into Kabul in force. Some were even pictured sitting at the same desk from which Ghani had only days ago tried to rally his faltering military to resist the Taliban.
“He’s a coward, and him leaving this vacuum is the reason why we have what we have today,” Mohseni said in a telephone interview from London. “The scenes at the airport and people getting killed are his doing.”
One of Ghani’s former ministers was similarly blunt, writing in a text message, “I wonder how he can live with such betrayal of his people.”
Ghani’s time in power in many ways came to mirror the failed international effort to rebuild Afghanistan into a modern state with regular elections, a Western-style financial system and a military built on an American model. The latter was a pricey endeavour, heavy on logistics and advanced weaponry in a country with little expertise in either one. Like that effort, Ghani’s approach faltered time and again.
He was a policy wonk at heart who had a penchant for conducting small talk in a vernacular best described as technocratese (think phrases like “consultative processes” and “cooperative frameworks”). It made him a successful finance minister in the years after 2001 and a darling of Western officials. He was looked up to, hopefully as the man who could clean up Afghanistan’s corrupt and often nonfunctional government after he was declared the victor of a highly disputed election in 2014.
Ghani, too, insisted that his reasoned analyst’s approach would overcome centuries of ethnic division, spoils-seeking and tribal hatred in Afghanistan’s politics. Yet he at times also sought to play the populist, talking tough about US interference in his country and sometimes showing up at rallies clad like a village chief in a heavy turban and thick robes that dwarfed his slight frame. He embraced warlords he had once insisted Afghanistan needed to be rid of if it was to flourish, and he took anger management classes to get his temper in check.
He neglected his US-backed army, leaving its soldiers in the field hungry; the military turned out to be a mere facade, crumbling as soon as the Taliban exerted pressure. He treated warlords who could have fought for him with contempt and condescension; they, too, put up little resistance as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan.
He micromanaged the military and civil command structure, replacing competence with personal loyalty. Critics accused Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, of alienating Afghanistan’s other, less numerous ethnic groups. He turned his back — at best — on reports of corruption in the upper echelons of his administration, allowing to flourish the same kind of graft that he had promised to clean up.
On his way out Afghanistan, he may have indulged in it himself: Russia’s embassy in Kabul said on Monday that “four cars were full of money” as Ghani’s entourage fled, the Russian news agency RIA reported.
Perhaps most disastrously over the last year was Ghani’s handling of his top military leadership, leaving in office a defence minister so crippled by injuries from a suicide bomb he could hardly function. He was finally replaced in June, but with a grizzled veteran from another age of combat.
Yet for all his smarts, Ghani often displayed a remarkable lack of self-awareness. As his statement defending his decision to flee as an act of noble self-sacrifice spread among Afghans, a clip from a television interview he did with the BBC in 2016 also began making the rounds on social media.
Asked about the tens of thousands of Afghans who were then fleeing to Europe, he said they were impoverishing their families and undermining Afghanistan’s future.
“I have no sympathy,” he said.
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