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farah stockman

Politics, Afghanistan-style

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, left, and rival candidate Ashraf Ghani appeared in Kabul Saturday.

JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, left, and rival candidate Ashraf Ghani appeared in Kabul Saturday.

Maybe I’m not supposed to admit this, but it’s true: I liked Ashraf Ghani from the moment I met him. Back in 2009, he was a long-shot candidate running for president of Afghanistan. He welcomed me into his home in Kabul, which was lined with old books and Persian rugs. A former World Bank official who wrote a book titled “Fixing Failed States,” Ghani looked just as wonky in person as he did on the billboards. In a country full of warlords with private militias, he seemed like the geek who had no chance.

I remember thinking that was a shame. His ideas impressed me. He told me about his fight as finance minister to get the US Agency for International Development to buy Afghan agricultural products instead of dumping free American wheat on the country, which put local farmers out of business. He told me how US officials had budgeted an astronomical sum to take the old Taliban-era money out of circulation, but he’d gotten it done far cheaper, using local hawala money-changers.

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And he told me about his lonely crusade to get American officials to fund the Afghan government itself, rather than expensive US defense contractors. He resented the dependency that the American contractors fostered, and it irked him that they reported back to Washington like spies. So when the US government hired the contractor BearingPoint to hire an “adviser” for him, the first task Ghani gave to the young American who got the job was to draw up a memo kicking BearingPoint out of the country.

Ghani had both guts and brains. I left his home thinking that it was a shame that he would never be elected. My sense of the hopelessness of his campaign was underscored when I attended a campaign rally of a rival candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, who had so much street cred that old men leapt to their feet during his speech to shout poetry praising him and his father.

Indeed, that year Abdullah Abdullah garnered nearly 40 percent of the vote, while Ghani garnered less than 3 percent.

So it’s strange for me to see that Ghani was declared the winner of a preliminary vote count last week, with Abdullah trailing far behind. It’s stranger still to hear Abdullah’s allegations that massive fraud produced Ghani’s lead. The evidence is strong enough for questions to linger: Did someone stuff the ballot boxes in Ghani’s favor without his consent? Or was he in on it?

To their credit, both Ghani and Abdullah have agreed to an extensive UN-led audit of the ballots, after Secretary of State John Kerry mediated for two grueling days in Kabul last week.

But one thing is clear: the Ashraf Ghani who is poised to become president of Afghanistan today is not the same candidate I met.

He’s grown a beard, and traded in his suit and tie for traditional Pashtun garb and turban. He’s changed his name, by adding the Pashtun tribal moniker “Ahmadzai” to remind voters that he hails from the largest ethnic group in the country. Most surprising of all, he’s taken as his running mate Abdul Rashid Dostum, a popular Uzbek warlord who allegedly suffocated prisoners of war in shipping containers — hardly the kind of guy a man with a PhD from Columbia usually associates with. At campaign rallies in Kandahar, Ghani’s more likely to tout his role in securing the release of insurgents from American prisons than talk about BearingPoint or USAID.

Perhaps this is the dilemma that all aspiring politicians face in developing democracies where politics is a blood sport, quite literally. Even the most educated and effective leaders are of no use to their country if they can’t get elected, or if they are immediately overthrown in a coup. Yet the things you have to do to “make it” in politics in Afghanistan tend to be the kind of things that taint you in the long run. What it takes to get elected in Afghanistan (and survive in office) turns out to be quite different than what it takes to manage an economy or draw up an effective five-year plan.

It will be weeks before we find out whether Ghani or Abdullah will be the next president of Afghanistan. But if Ghani is the winner, it could be much longer before we figure out which Ghani got elected.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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