Next Afghan leader seeks influence in Washington

AP News
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Posted: Sep 23, 2014 12:57 PM
Next Afghan leader seeks influence in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — Months before becoming president-elect of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai began spending tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists in the United States, using his ties to the West to seek influence in Washington.

Since May, Ghani Ahmadzai's campaign has hired three different Washington public relations and lobbying firms, according to required Justice Department filings. At times, his campaign has spent $180,000 a month to reach out to media, members of Congress and Obama administration officials.

Ghani Ahmadzai's lobbying campaign to build relationships with U.S. officials and lawmakers came while he was still in a hotly contested election tainted by allegations of fraud. He and his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, emerged as the two top vote-getters in April's election, setting up a runoff that led to more claims of ballot box stuffing. A lengthy audit of the nearly 8 million votes cast caused more political acrimony and fears mounted that the country would descend into violence.

On Sunday, Ghani Ahmadzai was announced the winner to succeed longtime Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Abdullah or his designee will become chief executive officer of the country under a landmark power-sharing deal.

Unlike Karzai, Ghani Ahmadzai says he'll sign the bilateral security agreement that sets the parameters for 9,800 U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends Dec. 31. But appearing too cozy with Washington has its own political risks in Afghanistan, where the public is wary of foreign meddling, even though the nation will be dependent on foreign aid for years to come.

The filings indicate that the Ghani Ahmadzai campaign paid $100,000 a month plus expenses to Roberti+White and another $45,000 a month to Sanitas International.

The two firms are working on "building a bridge between Washington and Ghani," said Christopher Harvin, a partner at Sanitas and a former Bush White House communications official. "Our role is to work with the media, work with the think tanks, work with members of Congress and any other key stakeholders to make sure they are getting accurate information" about the president-elect.

In a third contract, the campaign pays $35,000 a month to Fenton Communications for "media advising, media outreach and messaging," according to William Hamilton Jr., executive vice president of the company, which has offices in New York, Washington and California.

Ghani Ahmadzai, who says he has worked for the government of Afghanistan pro bono for more than a decade, has extensive ties to the West. He was finance minister in Afghanistan's transitional government after the fall of the Taliban, holds a doctorate from Columbia University, used to work at the World Bank and has taught at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California-Berkeley.

In 2005, he formed the Institute for State Effectiveness in Washington with Clare Lockhart, who was an adviser to him when he was finance minister. The institute studied countries like Haiti, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda, and successful transitions across the globe, and Lockhart and Ghani Ahmadzai co-authored a 2008 book titled "Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World."

The institute's nonprofit tax form lists three "key" employees: Ghani Ahmadzai, Lockhart and Philip R. Munger, a wealthy New Yorker and self-employed policy analyst who has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to mostly Democratic U.S. political campaigns. He is the son of Charles Munger, who is best known as the right-hand man of investor Warren Buffett.

The institute's 2012 tax form, the latest that could be obtained, said Ghani Ahmadzai's was paid $240,000 that year as chairman.

Abdullah also has reaped the benefits of Washington lobbying.

Before representing Ghani Ahmadzai, Chicago millionaire Joe Ritchie, listed on the Justice Department filing as a "senior adviser" to Abdullah's political party, hired the Sanitas firm to "raise the profile on Abdullah Abdullah's commitment to democracy, peace, stability and free and fair elections in Afghanistan."

Ritchie, who also has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to U.S. political candidates, told The Associated Press he did not officially work for the Abdullah campaign, but informally spoke to U.S. lawmakers about Abdullah and insisted on a fair ballot.

"I was trying to convince people involved that it was important not to let a huge fraud to go down, resulting in illegitimacy," said Ritchie.

Ritchie said his argument to lawmakers and others in Washington was: "'Let's leave Afghanistan with something that the Afghans believe in.' It was never an argument about favoring anybody. It was an argument of 'Let's just don't walk away.'"

Ritchie and his brother lived in Afghanistan for four years when their father worked as a civil engineer there in the late 1950s and 1960s. Their father is buried in Kabul.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the Ritchie brothers and Robert McFarlane, security adviser to former President Ronald Reagan, met with an Afghan commander named Abdul Haq, who had fought against Soviet troops in the 1980s. They were working to form a more democratic and modern post-Taliban Afghanistan. Haq was captured and executed by the Taliban just weeks after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that followed 9/11. Over the years, Ritchie has stayed in touch with Haq's younger brother, Nasrullah Baryalai Arsalai, a senior adviser to the Abdullah campaign.