Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 10, 2021

Former Hopkins professor elected new Afghan president

By CATHERINE PALMER | November 20, 2014

Ashraf Ghani, a former associate professor in the anthropology department, was declared president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on Sept. 21. Ghani was a professor at Hopkins from 1983-1991.

He was hired as an assistant professor by Sidney Mintz, a founder and retired professor in the anthropology department.

“He was voted for, as I recall, unanimously,” Mintz said. “[Once hired], he was a real bridge builder. He was great — really getting to know people in other departments, and I think did us a great deal of good — advertising us and talking with people from other departments about what we did.”

Mintz said that Ghani was regarded highly by students as well.

“He was a very demanding teacher,” Mintz said. “In other words, [he was] one who asked a lot of his students and expected to get it. I think they respected him for this and thought that he was certainly serious.”

According to Niloofar Haeri, the current chair of the department, Ghani taught classes on anthropological theory and on the Middle East.  She agreed that he was a demanding teacher.

“He was an excellent teacher,” Haeri said. “He expected a lot from his students. It’s possible that students found him difficult. He was very thorough. One thing I remember very well is that if someone had a project... he was so helpful [regarding] what [the person] should read.  [He] helped you conceptualize. That was something that stood out.”

Mintz and Haeri both agreed that Ghani helped them as well when they were working on their academic publications.

Jane Guyer, a current professor in the department, was a visiting professor at Hopkins from 1989-1990.

“[Ghani] is a very brilliant mind,” Guyer said. “He had [an] enormous memory. He could remember fully what page a quotation was on in a particular book. He had that kind of a memory — very detailed, very attentive — and he could configure very complicated ideas very quickly. By sheer talent, by nature... he retained an enormous amount of very detailed material, so he did teach classes that required him to have a mastery of the theory.”

According to Guyer, Ghani also led and participated in workshops and study groups outside of his courses.

Mintz remarked that Ghani was gifted with languages but humble about his abilities.

“People who are comfortable in three or four languages don’t need to waste any time telling you how smart they are,” Mintz said. “They’re never smart alecks about it. He was very good that way.”

Although Ghani lived in the United States for close to 24 years, he spent his early life in Afghanistan. After earning his Bachelor’s degree from the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, where he met his wife Rula, Ghani taught Afghan studies and anthropology at Kabul University in Afghanistan for three years.

He then received a scholarship to earn a master’s degree in Anthropology at Columbia University. During his time at Columbia, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, and the majority of men in his family there were imprisoned.

Although Ghani stayed in America and went on to also earn his Ph.D. from Columbia, Afghanistan remained a prominent part of his studies. His doctoral thesis was titled “Production and Domination: Afghanistan, 1747-1901.”

He taught briefly at the University of California, Berkeley in 1983 before taking a job at Hopkins. Mintz said when Ghani left Berkeley for Hopkins, one of his Berkeley students followed him to Baltimore to earn her Ph.D.

Mintz said that during Ghani’s eight years as a Hopkins professor, he and Ghani became good friends.

“I knew him at a time when his children were still tiny and got to know them both,” Mintz said. “[My wife and I] visited [Ghani’s family] often. They’d come to dinner and we’d go there for dinner. I got to know him in a domestic setting as well as in the office.”

In 1991 Ghani left Hopkins as an associate professor and became the lead anthropologist at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Haeri believes Ghani’s time at the World Bank helped expand his understanding of global financial systems.

“I think Ashraf’s stay at the World Bank taught him a lot about the many layers of how financial systems work,” Haeri said. “I think that really enhanced his knowledge of how countries work. That plus his anthropological background gave him unusual skills.”

Guyer, who also kept in touch with Ghani while he worked for the World Bank, said she believes that his motivation to join the Bank stemmed from the tumultuous situation in Afghanistan at the time.

“As Afghanistan entered into more and more internal trouble, he became very devoted to trying to both learn the skills and be in the places where he might make a contribution of some sort to the ongoing development of advance,” Guyer said. “I think it was at least partly that which drew him from academia into the policy world. [He had] a real commitment to seeing how his work and his thinking could make a difference in the place to which he was most connected.”

In 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, Ghani returned to Afghanistan and served as Special Adviser to Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.’s representative for Afghanistan. From 2002-2004 he worked pro bono as Chief Adviser to Afghanistan’s then Interim President Hamid Karzai. He helped organize the Loya Jirgas, the government body elected former President Hamid Karzai and approved a new constitution in 2004.

He also served as Finance Minister of Afghanistan during the interim administration and made sweeping reforms. In recognition of his accomplishments, he received the Sayed Jamal-ud-Din Afghan medal, the highest civilian award in the country, and was named the best finance minister of Asia by the financial magazine Emerging Minds in 2003.

After Karzai was elected, Ghani declined an offer for a position in the Afghan cabinet and instead requested that he be appointed chancellor of Kabul University. According to Mintz, he had a major impact on that university.

“He introduced very important reforms there,” Mintz said. “The universities in that part of the world are very traditional and he sought to modernize the way in which faculty and students relate[d] to each other. Apparently, that was very successful.”

In 2006 Ghani was a candidate for Secretary-General of the United Nations (U.N.). According to Mintz, he had previously worked with the U.N. in 2000 to help write the Brahimi Report to reform peacekeeping practices. However, the position ultimately went to current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Ghani also returned to Hopkins in 2006 to give the 13th annual Sidney W. Mintz lecture in Anthropology, which was established in Mintz’s honor prior to his retirement in 1997. Mintz said that Ghani was very involved in establishing the lecture series.

“He had this idea that what they should do [was] establish a lecture in honor of me. A lot of students and colleagues... figured it would be possible to start a modest fund to support a lecture series, so they did. And he was an important figure in that,” Mintz said.

In 2009 Ghani ran in Afghanistan’s presidential election. He came in fourth, earning three percent of the vote, and Karzai was re-elected.

In 2014 Ghani ran against the runner-up in the 2009 election, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. After a preliminary election in which no candidates received a majority of votes, Ghani and Abdullah, the front runners, participated in a runoff election in June. According to the results, Ghani received a clear majority.

However, accusations of electoral fraud brought the election results to a stalemate. In September, the Independent Election Commission, supervised by the U.N. and financially supported by the U.S. government, declared Ghani the winner after he signed an agreement to share power with Abdullah.

Abdullah now serves in the newly-created position of government chief executive, a position with prime ministerial powers.

After being declared the winner, Ghani and his team took to Twitter to thank their supporters and recognize the significance of Ghani’s nonviolent accession to the presidency.

“We’ve proved that political affairs are not solved thru guns, but thru talks. We thank all Afghans who’ve waited patiently all these months,” a post from his Twitter account reads.

Haeri followed the election and remarked on his unique position as a president and anthropologist.

“I followed [the election] much more the second time that he ran,” Haeri said. “I was very interesting to see. I don’t think there is a single leader of a country who’s an anthropologist. It’s quite amazing.”

Haeri also said she thought his knowledge of Islam would help him serve as an effective leader of an Islamic republic.

“His deep knowledge of Islam will allow him to enter into meaningful dialogue with those who make certain claims about what Islam [is],” Haeri said.

Haeri also said she believes Ghani may be the ideal person to handle the tumultuous state of affairs in Afghanistan.

“If there is any world leader who might be a match for the depth of the problems of his or her country, it is probably Ashraf,” Haeri wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Guyer said she believes that Ghani has the right skills to govern effectively, but was unsure of how the government structure in Afghanistan would play a role in his enactment of policy.

“He certainly has enormous tenacity, enormous intelligence and enormous knowledge, so what that will turn into in terms of policy and implementation will, of course, depend on politics in place,” Guyer said. “You could conceptualize something but be unable to actually do it because of the administrative structure or the [receptiveness] of the population.”

Mintz believes that Ghani is well-qualified for his presidential duties because of his extensive experience in academic, financial and governmental settings.

Mintz commented on the apparent lack of student awareness of Ghani’s past at Hopkins.

“I’m delighted to know that someone at Johns Hopkins University has finally found out that someone who has been here has become a president of [a] country,” Mintz said.

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