JALALABAD, Afghanistan—On Aug. 2, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai appeared on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS to make his case for the Afghan presidency. His answers were astute and his facts irrefutable, and he seemed more engaged than the other main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, who spoke from an office in Kabul, wore a suit, and seemed to be trying, with an affect of singular disinterest, to appear modern and refined. Ghani, in all his Afghan plumage, was beamed in "from a tent in Kabul" (Zakaria emphasized tent, as if amused by it), but he looked to me as though he were playing a high-stakes game of dress up. "It's a palace of intrigues," he said of President Hamid Karzai's administration. "All is a game of pretension, and King Lear does not understand that he is being fooled." Shakespeare crossed with the Afghan wardrobe made for a confusing optic, as if Ghani were trying to appeal to eyes in Afghanistan and ears in America—and looking generally uncomfortable in both pursuits.
Ghani is a brilliant intellectual with a mile-long résumé who has done a tremendous amount for Afghanistan's reconstruction since the fall of the Taliban, one of the few who has been able to bridge the gap between ideas and execution. In America, interested parties are, for the most part, smitten with him, but few harbor illusions about his presidential prospects, which are dim, even though he is widely regarded as the best medicine for an ailing country.
Ghani came back to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban having co-written a book called Fixing Failed States and having co-founded an institute to study them. His reputation as an academic, technocrat, and reformer is close to sterling, but his international appeal plays to a narrative Afghans are programmed to reject. In a country that has been a stepping stone for empires and a chessboard for foreign interests, politicians with external ties are to be watched closely. On the streets of Kabul, I have variously heard Ghani dismissed as "not Afghan"; "a foreigner"; and, most charitably, "an intellectual, yes, but not presidential." By default, his extended furlough in the West has relegated him to the political purgatory Afghans devise colorful names to describe: Zana-e Bush, literally "Bush's wives"; or sag-shuyan, "dog washers," for the lowly vocations the privileged classes surely filled while overseas. (The latter is an especially insulting slur, because the American pastime of inviting animals into homes and giving them human names is a source of genuine consternation here. "They're unclean," a friend says, "it makes no sense.")
Unlike other exiled politicians who have returned to their native lands and been greeted by welcoming crowds, Ghani wasn't forced out of Afghanistan, so he doesn't have the hero's privilege of a public that either obligingly forgets the reason he left or celebrates it. Ghani's campaign must constantly prove that his loyalties lie with Afghanistan—Afghans expect him to leave if things really heat up. Ghani represents everything Afghanistan needs, but he's also precisely what its people can't stomach. A vote for Ghani is a concession of pride.
This mind-set is particularly pervasive in rural areas where low literacy and uneven media saturation make Ghani hard to explain, and it plays to Karzai's strengths. His Afghan-ness is harder to question, and that's critical to an electorate whose most frequent expression of nationalism is collective resentment for other countries' meddling. Karzai has convinced most of the Afghans I've talked to that he has rebuked the West when they've overstepped their boundaries, but Ghani has no record to prove that he has or will.
Still, on a brutally hot day in Jalalabad, on the very last stop of his campaign, I watched him try.
Going into the event, Ghani had picked up support from some influential leaders outside his own Pashtun community. Afghanistan's major cities have been papered over with campaign posters that tend to depict angry-looking candidates, but Ghani's strike a contrasting tone, gentle but stern, one with a Quran; one in which he wears the traditional lungi; one in profile, with a Rodin-esque fist on chin, as if to say, "Yeah, I'm an intellectual, so I think a lot. What of it?" For a 60-year-old academic, Ghani has done a remarkable job, in a short period of time, of becoming a man who fits the clothes he's wearing.
Taking the podium in Jalalabad after hugging and cheek-kissing his way through the crowd and then waiting out a series of speakers is a candidate who looks completely different from the one I saw on CNN two weeks before. Ghani is not only comfortable, he's in his element. Impassioned, slicing and smacking the air, gesturing violently with his hands and then freezing them to let the point simmer, occasionally pointing directly at the audience. I see a master of controlled chaos; he's theatrical, a little frightening, even. Convincing as a tribal leader you would follow into battle, an orator you'd be a damned fool not to listen to, and all this before I have any idea what he's saying. I see Ashraf Ghani coming out of his political chrysalis and becoming an ornamented, be-turbaned Pashtun tribal elder. His call for national solidarity be damned, here in Jalalabad, he's playing to his Pashtun base, and they're eating it up. His voice sounds understandably hoarse, but instead of making him seem weak, the affect is growling and grave. He grabs his turban and points at it when he gets to his stanza about cultural pride, and when the spirit grabs a young man who leaps for the lectern and yells, "Thank God for giving us Ashraf Ghani!" the crowd responds in kind. Allahu Akbar, they yell for the Shakespeare-citing Ph.D. from Columbia. Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!
Ghani may not win this election. Indeed, most think he's a long shot to even make it to a runoff. (If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote on Aug. 20, there will be an Oct. 1 runoff between the two candidates who received the most votes.) But his campaign staff insists that the polls are misleading and that he'll surprise us all on Thursday. An accomplished technocrat giving the incumbent a run for his money would be a promising sign for the country's first legitimately contested election, but, regardless, Ghani's campaign has been a crucible and has effectively convinced a critical mass of Afghans that he is accomplished and qualified in a way that his accomplishments and qualifications never could. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has cultivated a political skill to go with all the rest.
Related in Slate: Anne Applebaum argued that it doesn't matter who wins the Afghan election; it's how they win that counts. Brian Palmer explained the accuracy of pre-election polling in Afghanistan. Christopher Hitchens wrote that we took a wrong turn in Afghanistan, but it's too early for despair. Plus, why it's easier to grow poppy than wheat.