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The Governing Style Of Ashraf Ghani, The Departing Afghan President

DON GONYEA, HOST:

One figure central to all that's happening in Afghanistan is the country's president who has fled the country, Ashraf Ghani. He left earlier today as Taliban forces entered Kabul. In a statement posted to Facebook, Ghani said he left the capital in order to avoid bloodshed. We wanted to learn more about Ghani and how he ruled. For that, we've called George Packer. He profiled Ashraf Ghani for The New Yorker Magazine in 2016. Mr. Packer is currently a writer for The Atlantic. Welcome.

GEORGE PACKER: Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: To start us off, we know that President Ghani has fled Kabul amid the Taliban's advance. In a piece that you posted today, you write, quote, "the Biden administration failed to heed the warnings on Afghanistan, failed to act with urgency. And its failure has left tens of thousands of Afghans to a terrible fate. This betrayal will live in infamy. The burden of shame falls on President Joe Biden." Tell us why you believe that.

PACKER: Biden and his administration have known for months that thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States who were interpreters, who were human rights activists, who staked everything on our promises, would be exposed to retaliation and death if the Taliban took over. And rather than moving quickly to evacuate those Afghans before the Taliban took over, they delayed and delayed and had excuse after excuse. And now the collapse has happened so quickly that most of those people, even ones holding visas in their hands to the United States, are trapped in Kabul, cannot get out and are facing a really terrible fate. And that is absolutely on the Biden administration, whatever we may think of the decision to withdraw troops and end the war.

GONYEA: Let's talk now about President Ashraf Ghani. In your 2016 piece in The New Yorker, you describe this intellectual leader who spent years in academia. He was better with books than he was with people. How did all of that shape his governing style?

PACKER: In some ways, Ghani had all the right ideas. He served as the first finance minister of President Hamid Karzai after the fall of the Taliban. He saw that massive foreign aid would lead to corruption, that the Afghan people needed to be brought into the decision-making of how that money was spent, that warlords would undermine the integrity of the state. He saw all that because that was his academic field. So you would have thought that when he came to power in 2014, he would be well-positioned to do what no other Afghan leader had been able to do, which is to modernize the country and do it while keeping the country together.

But he was a micromanager. He was - had a terrible temper. He alienated all the people in power he needed to have on his side. He was, in a sense, governing a country that existed in his own mind. He had these beautiful ideas about learning about hydroelectricity from the Swiss and sheep raising from New Zealand. And Afghanistan was a different place. And he was so sure of himself and so isolated in his arrogance and in his brilliance that he never could bring the country along with him. He could never govern the country that he had in his own head. And by the end, he was all alone.

GONYEA: And I'm wondering, how did his faults, his ineffectiveness contribute to the failure to keep the Taliban from from regaining power, as they now appear to have?

PACKER: Ghani's own particular contribution was to antagonize his generals by thinking that he knew better than they did, to ignore the realities of power in rural areas, in the provinces who had power, who he needed as an ally because he was so isolated in the palace in Kabul, and his refusal also to see that he had to cut a deal with the Taliban. He did not want to negotiate with them. He did not want to share power with anyone. And so up to the very end, he seemed to think that he could stay in power and somehow rule the country from the palace while the Taliban occupied 95% of Afghanistan. So there was a quality of fantasia and illusion in Ghani that pervaded the palace and the capital. And it left him really a solitary figure who got out by the skin of his teeth.

GONYEA: Obviously, he leaves the country in a dire, dire place. I'm wondering what, if anything, have been his achievements? And what might his legacy be?

PACKER: I think his achievements were long ago. One of them was something called the National Solidarity Program, which he ran under the finance ministry and which really did force foreign donors and foreign countries to deal with the Afghan people themselves and gave money to the villagers based on projects the villagers themselves came up with. That's a model of development that makes good sense and that he pushed for very hard. He was also - he himself was free of corruption. He really cared more about his own ideas than about getting rich. In that sense, he was quite different from his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

So that's to me the good side of the ledger and something of a tragedy because Ghani did have so many good ideas but was personally so incapable of bringing them to fruition and was also the president of a country in which those ideas were almost doomed to fail because of history and because of foreign powers and because of the balance of power inside Afghanistan, which always seems to shift away from the modernizers and back to the forces of reaction. This is an old story in Afghanistan, and the Taliban are the latest version of it.

GONYEA: What do you think is next for him? Does he become a leader in exile or does he fade away?

PACKER: I don't know. I don't think he has a future. This - the future will be the legacy of having presided over the collapse of the country and the return of the Taliban. And I'm sure he'll be justifying himself for the rest of his life, but it won't really matter because history has already been written.

GONYEA: That's journalist George Packer. He profiled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for The New Yorker Magazine in 2016. Packer is a writer for The Atlantic. George Packer, thank you very much for your time.

PACKER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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