Updated: 06/12/2014 10:59 | By Agence France-Presse

Ghani: Fiery Afghan academic looks to seize presidency

Ashraf Ghani is an intense, intellectual high-achiever with a famous temper -- his rule would seldom be dull if he wins Saturday's run-off election and becomes the new president of Afghanistan.


Ghani: Fiery Afghan academic looks to seize presidency

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai during an election rally in Kandahar province on June 6, 2014 - by Javed Tanveer

Ghani, now 65, was a career academic and economist who left Afghanistan in 1977 and only returned 24 years later to pursue his dream of rebuilding the country.

He studied at New York's Columbia University, before teaching at several US universities during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

He worked with the World Bank from 1991, becoming an expert on the Russian coal industry, and finally moved back to Kabul as a senior UN special adviser soon after the Taliban were routed in late 2001.

In the heady days that followed, he was a key  architect of the interim government and became a powerful finance minister under President Hamid Karzai from 2002 to 2004, campaigning hard against burgeoning corruption.

Renowned for his energy, Ghani introduced a new currency, set up a tax system, encouraged wealthy expat Afghans to return home, and cajoled donors as the country emerged from the austere Taliban era.

But he also demonstrated a divisive character which earned him a reputation that still dogs him today.

"He never allowed anyone to get too close, remaining aloof," wrote veteran author Ahmed Rashid, who has known him for 25 years.

"Unfortunately his explosions of bad temper and displays of arrogance with fellow Afghans and Westerners were all too frequent and soon made him a loathed figure."

- Strong campaigner -

After performing poorly in the 2009 election, Ghani shocked many Afghans this time by choosing as a running mate General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord accused of multiple human rights abuses.

But Ghani lit up the campaign trail with a series of fiery speeches around the country, and he did better than many expected in the first round by taking 31.6 percent of the vote to the 45 percent of his rival Abdullah Abdullah.

Ghani is Pashtun -- like Karzai -- and recently started using his tribal name Ahmadzai to underline his background, though he stresses the importance of unifying Afghanistan's disparate ethnic groups.

Characteristically, he told AFP during the campaign that Abdullah was trying to steal many of his policies.

"I'm delighted that we sound similar because a lot of the ideas have been mine since 2009," he said, boasting that he has influenced national decision-making from the moment he returned 13 years ago.

His most recent role was overseeing the security transition from NATO to Afghan command, a job which he used to travel to all parts of the country and raise his public profile.

Ghani is married to Rula, whom he met while studying for his first degree at the American University in Lebanon, and has two children.

He maintains a disciplined daily routine after losing part of his stomach to cancer that also destroyed his immune system, leaving him to nibble on snacks as he is unable to digest a full meal.

Some say his brush with death fuels his fierce determination -- as well as his decision to take a tilt at the top job against the odds.

If he wins power, Ghani is likely to repair frayed ties with the US, but his individualist style may make for rocky relations with outgoing President Karzai.

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