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From Afghan nation-builder to life in 'exile': Ashraf Ghani flees country in defeat

Seen as a visionary with expertise in failed states, Ghani was unable to mend Afghanistan's deep divisions.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani looks on at a meeting at the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on July 28, 2021.
Throughout Ashraf Ghani's time as president, the Taliban were able to extend their presence in Afghanistan, taking over state hospitals and schools and running a shadow justice system while disputing the legitimacy of the government in Kabul.Sajjad Hussain / AFP - Getty Images file

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani once promised to rebuild Afghanistan. On Sunday, he fled the country within hours of the Taliban's entering the capital, Kabul, leaving behind a legacy of lofty but unfulfilled promises.

Ghani departed seven years after he rose to power in August 2014 with a vision of a country that could be moved beyond the war and modernized. Often labeled a technocrat and considered an expert on failed states, Ghani stressed efforts to rein in corruption and promised to boost economic opportunities and strengthen protections of human rights — in particular, women's rights.

But a resurgent Taliban, tepid Afghan political support and dwindling international backing left him with few options, particularly as the U.S. military presence was drawn down.

Alex Thier, a former official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, who was also an adviser to the Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban, said Ghani spent years building up international support for projects to repair Afghanistan's institutions. But that work suffered as Ghani dealt with the reality of the country's fractured politics as president.

"He was more of a technocrat and a visionary than he was a political leader, and I think that was very challenging and costly, because the reality is that Afghanistan is a diverse, multiethnic state with a lot of different power centers and a lot of demands for compromise," Thier said.

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Ghani, a member of the country's majority Pashtun ethnicity, who as president was often pictured in traditional dress, spent much of his early career outside Afghanistan working as an academic in the U.S. and at the World Bank.

He returned to the country years later, becoming finance minister in 2002 and gaining a reputation as an ambitious outsider with a sharp tongue and a vision to modernize the country.

Known for his short temper, Ghani fell out with former President Hamid Karzai and left the government.

Eventually, however, he would seek the country's highest office for himself, running for president in 2009 in a failed bid before succeeding in 2014 and being re-elected in a troubled 2019 election.

Throughout his presidency, the Taliban were able to amplify their presence inside Afghanistan, eventually becoming so powerful that Ghani was shut out of peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in September 2019.

And on Sunday, the Taliban's rise seemed to have been solidified as a once-hopeful Ghani appeared defeated, telling Afghans that their future now lies in the Taliban's hands.

In a statement uploaded to his Facebook account, Ghani said: "In order to avoid the bleeding flood, I thought it best to get out. Taliban have won the judgement of sword and guns and now they are responsible for protecting the countrymen's honor, wealth and self esteem."

Ghani's team confirmed his departure to CNBC shortly after Abdullah Abdullah, a rival who is head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, said he had left Afghanistan. Abdullah blamed Ghani for the situation in Afghanistan and the Taliban's rapid advance last week as U.S. troops pulled out of the country.

Later, a video put out by Al Jazeera appeared to show extraordinary images of armed Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace.

It was a dramatic turnaround for Ghani, who a day earlier had held firm, telling the public in a brief televised address that he still had hopes to "stop the ongoing imposed war on Afghan people."

Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he believes Ghani "really didn't have a choice."

"He abandoned his people, but ... he'd probably be swinging from a lamppost if he stayed," he said. "It was a matter of his personal survival at this point."

Roggio added: "There was no Afghanistan for him to govern. Not even Kabul. ... And if there is any resistance in Afghanistan, he wouldn't be the one to mount it, anyway."

Still, Ghani's departure caught several people in his government by surprise. Education Minister Rangina Hamidi told the BBC: "I'm in shock. I'm in disbelief. ... I didn't expect this from the president that I knew and a president who I trusted fully."

Refugee advocate Muzafar Ali said Sunday that Ghani's departure had been "anticipated."

"The genius and expert on failed states escapes in the last minutes," he tweeted.

Al Jazeera reported that while some members of the public and administration are able to understand why Ghani left the way he did, they still see his actions as "unpatriotic."

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Roggio said it is unlikely that Ghani will ever return as long as the Taliban are in power.

"His future is exile. He won't be able to return," he said. "I think that he's one who the Taliban would love to make an example of.

"You know, he led the Afghan government that's responsible for killing tens of thousands of Taliban fighters," Roggio said. "If he was to return ... and if they didn't kill him, he would be made an example of."

Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul, Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Chantal Da Silva from Toronto.

Jason Abbruzzese and Zeerak Khurram contributed.