Anwar Ahady at his Providence College office

Photo courtesy Providence Journal















While Ahady attempts to rebuild Afghanistan’s banking infrastructure, many of his fellow Afghans, such as these vendors on the banks of the Kabul River, struggle to eke out a living following years of severe drought.

Photo by B.K. Bangash

Each morning in Kabul, Afghanistan, Anwar Ul-Haq Ahady (KSM83, G86) slips into a bulletproof SUV protected by 10 armed bodyguards and heads to his office to begin a 12-hour workday. With the exception of Friday, the Muslim day of worship, the 50-year-old Ahady never misses a day at the Afghan Central Bank, which he oversees.

From the tinted protection of his windows, Ahady peers out on to dusty city streets marred with potholes and crammed with horse-drawn carts, bicycles and pick-up trucks filled with men. The sand-colored landscape of Kabul is within his reach, but street-level glimpses are all he has. It is too dangerous for him to walk the streets freely.

Ahady’s world is limited to the bank, his home and trips to the presidential palace to meet with Afghan transitional president Hamid Karzai. Two years after the war in Afghanistan, Ahady still cannot visit Jigdalai, his birthplace, and the neighborhood where he was raised, although he has heard the latter was demolished by bombings.

He finds himself asking, “How far behind have we fallen?” When he left Afghanistan 25 years ago to study at Northwestern, the country was not modern, but he remembers that women occupied professional roles as police officers and doctors, and there was an openness to the arts. Now warlords are more in charge than the government in many regions, and public officials are vulnerable to assassination attempts. Just hours before Ahady returned to his homeland in February 2002 for the first time in a quarter century, transport minister Abdul Rahman was killed by an angry mob at the Kabul airport.

“Afghanistan’s state of progress has gone back so far, it is very painful to observe,” Ahady says. “Reconstruction will be an immense task.”

It has been only a year and a half since Ahady stood before classrooms of students at Providence College in Rhode Island, lecturing about Middle Eastern politics, as he had since 1987. Today his life is no longer so removed from his work. The job in the United States, which Ahady left to aid the reconstruction of Afghanistan, seems very distant now.

Providence Journal reporter Michael Corkery, who visited Kabul
in spring 2002, describes lines of people at the bank — including international aid officials in business suits and turbaned merchants — waiting to see Ahady.

“To find Anwar there in a nice suit, on the phone — and he’s got four different cellphones going — trying to run this place, it just struck me how difficult his job was,” Corkery says. “The bank was sort of what you would think of as an old Soviet bureaucratic institution, very dark and musty, with outdated equipment.

“Anwar is deeply committed to Afghanistan,” Corkery continues. “At one point he had a cold — you get sick there easily because of the poor air quality — and it didn’t stop him. He kept working right through. I’d see him there late at night. He would be there in the morning, and he’d be there when it was dark, and then he’d bring his work home.”

Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan on Oct. 7, and the Taliban regime fell on Nov. 13. In Rhode Island, Ahady, the president of the Afghan Social Democratic Party since 1995, watched the situation closely, offering his insights in interviews with local newspapers and the BBC. His wife, Fatima Gailani, a longtime activist against the Taliban and for women’s rights, also watched anxiously. For years they had planned for a time when Afghanistan would finally become democratic, years during which Ahady regularly traveled to meet with party supporters in Pakistan.

In December 2001 Ahady attended the United Nations talks on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany. There, a transitional government, the Afghan Interim Authority, was assembled. Ahady was offered the position of either minister of transportation or of irrigation. Unhappy with the cabinet’s composition, which he thought did not reflect the Pashtun ethnic majority and favored pro-U.S. warlords from the north, he rejected both posts.

Ahady shared his concerns with Karzai, whom he had known since the 1980s, when Karzai’s brother operated a restaurant in Chicago.

“I told him I was unhappy with the cabinet but I had supported him,” he says. “I told him I was interested in coming back to the country to help democracy come along. He said, ‘I need you,’ and offered me the position at the Central Bank.”

Two months later, Ahady left behind his job and home in the United States to join the reconstruction. When his plane landed in Kabul, he received shocking news. Afghanistan’s transport minister had been killed just hours earlier by an angry mob at the airport. Ahady began his mission hopeful about helping lay the groundwork for democracy but deeply troubled by the insecure conditions he found.

“It was really an atmosphere of fear and terror,” says Ahady. “But I still was excited to be involved in the national affairs of my country. I’m a patriot. I’m glad to help my country. It’s beautiful to me.”

On his first day at work, Ahady entered a decaying bank building with only three computers and 3,000 employees — almost none of whom spoke English, so they were unable to communicate with international aid workers. Nor did they hold university degrees. At the time, the exchange rate was 50,000 afghanis to the dollar, and inflation was soaring. The largest note was 10,000 afghani, and people carried huge sacks of money through the marketplace when they wanted to buy something.

The U.S. Department of State estimated the population of Afghanistan in 2000 was 26 million people, with a life expectancy of about 47 years. The gross domestic product was estimated at about $3 billion in 1991, a figure that may still be accurate. In the landlocked country, many people make a living off sheep and goats. Many others grow opium; Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of the ingredient used to make heroin. To combat this dire economic situation, the World Bank will administer $4.5 billion in international aid through 2006, according to the CIA World Factbook.

One of Ahady’s first challenges as governor of the Central Bank was a decision about whether to retain the afghani or dollarize the Afghan currency. Dollars or Pakistani rupees were most often used, though numerous versions of the national currency printed for different warlords were in circulation.

In fall 2002 Ahady initiated the issuing of a new afghani currency to cut down on inflation. Security around him was heightened for fear that warlords printing counterfeit currencies would retaliate.
U.S. State Department Afghanistan desk officer James McNaught (WCAS90, G90) was in Bamiyan, the remote site where the Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, when the currency change was taking place. He praised Ahady, as well as finance minister Ashraf Ghani.

“As Central Bank governor, Ahady’s done an outstanding job in getting the Afghan currency switched over,” says McNaught. “It was done rather ingeniously — through the money changers. It’s a cash country, nobody uses anything but cash. People came in with the notes and exchanged them in the markets.”

Ahady not only formulated the exchange of the money but also the elimination of the old currency to make sure people didn’t attempt to exchange stolen notes.

“He spent a lot of time burning money to make sure the old currency didn’t sneak out the back door and then come back in,” says Robert Trudeau, chair of Providence College’s political science department. “He’s probably burned more currency than anyone in the world in recent times, several tons a day.”

The currency shift improved the exchange rate to 50 afghanis to the dollar, but the economy still faces immense structural problems. Ahady would like to privatize the banking system, build infrastructure, establish data collection and hire a more educated staff. Currently he has 60 computers at the bank but only about 15 people he can rely on, most of whom have studied in India or Pakistan. His goal is to increase the number of young professionals to 60.

“It’s an inflated bureaucracy,” Ahady says. “Sometimes I do other people’s work. It’s not that I don’t want to delegate authority. I just don’t have that many professional staff.”

Ahady was groomed for a leadership position from childhood. He was in elementary school when his father sat him down and told him he expected him to rise to leadership in the Afghan government when he grew up. At the time Afghanistan was ruled by King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who held power from 1933 to 1973.

“My father was a very demanding man,” recalls Ahady of the man who served many years as a provincial judge and eventually a supreme court justice under the monarchy. “I was very young, and [he] already thought of me becoming a cabinet-level minister. I can’t say I had such a high level of aspiration at that age. But when I went to college, I knew some day I wanted a position.”

Ahady excelled in school, finishing first in his class in elementary school and then at Habibia High School in Kabul. In 1968, at age 16, he received an American Field Service scholarship to stay with an American family and attend high school for a year in Summit, N.J.

“I wanted it badly,” Ahady says. “I knew it would open up opportunities. I knew that English would be very important in my future.”

The year would be pivotal for Ahady. As communists and Islamic fundamentalists struggled for power at home, he encountered democracy for the first time abroad.

“It was my first time outside the country and my first encounter with, really, the modern world,” Ahady recalls. “I was very much struck with the prosperity in the United States. I realized that in order to do well, you do not have to inherit wealth. You could do well if you have talent and work very hard.”

When Ahady returned to Afghanistan, he began attending Kabul University to study law, as his father wished. He also met a group of Kabul University students who were organizers for the Social Democratic Party. The party advocated for democratic government, along with an emphasis on the Islamic faith.

“My father was happy I wasn’t joining communists, but if I had joined Islamic fundamentalists, I don’t think he would have objected either,” Ahady says. “He wasn’t a terribly politicized person.”

Ahady received a U.S. Agency for International Development
scholarship in 1970 to attend the American University in Beirut, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1974 and a master’s degree in political science in 1977. Of his education there, he says, “It was a very good mixture of modernity and Middle Eastern culture.”

He then traveled to Northwestern in 1978 to obtain a PhD in political science. But as he watched the success of Kellogg School of Management graduates, he decided to get an MBA as well. He also completed his doctorate, writing a dissertation about the impact of oil on politics in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Living in the United States, Ahady did not forget his father’s wishes for him. “All along I was thinking of one day returning to Afghanistan and applying what I learned,” he says. “I wanted to be ready in a number of areas. My MBA has helped me a lot in managing the Central Bank, but I also learned critical thinking from my PhD studies.”

Political science professor emeritus Kenneth Janda, with whom he studied, expected Ahady to go far. “I assumed that he would have a good career in academia, but whenever I heard about Afghanistan, I thought Anwar would be a good person to go back over there to rebuild a country,” Janda says. “And that’s what happened.”

Ahady was a graduate student at Northwestern when Soviet-backed communists took control of Afghanistan in 1979. He was a professor of political science at Providence College when the Taliban came to power in 1996 and imposed Islamic fundamentalism on Afghanistan. As president of the Afghan Social Democratic (Afghan Mellat) Party, Ahady dreamed of returning. Through the years, he had traveled to Pakistan, visiting with his nine brothers and sisters and mother, and meeting with party supporters to plan for the day when Afghanistan would become a democratic and modern Islamic state.

Ahady’s vision for Afghanistan is one where democracy can flourish while Islam is also accepted. He supports freedoms such as free elections and freedom of the press.

“Islamic modernism can allow for human rights, women’s rights,” he says. “We’re not for secularism. We think Islamic modernism and human rights are compatible.”

In that opinion, Ahady has the support of Middle East scholar Elizabeth Hurd, a visiting assistant political science professor at Northwestern. “When religion is a very important part of a country’s culture, you can’t expect to expel it from public life,” Hurd says, “because what ends up happening is that you have a backlash of people who feel they’ve been shut out. [Leaders] need to find a role for religion that’s not totalitarian.”

Ahady believes that democratic change does not have to wait for “a certain level of development,” although he does not think that present-day Afghanistan has the resources to construct a social welfare system to aid people with health care, housing and unemployment benefits.

“Even though Afghanistan is not a very developed country, I think democracy will prevail if the political elite will accept it,” he comments. “Sometimes people argue there is a need for enlightened dictatorship. The problem is, once you have a dictatorship, the enlightenment disappears.”

In June 2004, when national elections will be held, Ahady’s party plans to put forward a candidate if they do not agree with Karzai’s agenda. Ahady does not rule out running for office as prime minister or president if a constitution establishes such a spot.

“I will mobilize my people,” Ahady says. “We are forming a democratic alliance with other groups. We will be identifying issues. If we offer our own candidate, I might be that candidate.”

He regrets that with the country as dangerous as it is at present, a political candidate could not campaign as one would in the United States. “I would really like to go to different parts of the country, to be able to go to Friday prayers, to go to a restaurant with people and talk to them firsthand about their lives, to know what people think,” he says. “I would very much like the security situation to be such that one could openly campaign for any election.”

Ahady says that if he doesn’t find an important role in the future
government of Afghanistan, he may return to Providence College to teach for a few years. For now, he has asked Providence to extend his sabbatical leave. “I prefer to have a role in Afghanistan,” he says.

Katherine Leal Unmuth (J03), a former Northwestern magazine editorial assistant, is now a features intern with the Dallas Morning News. She plans to pursue a career in newspaper reporting.

Northwestern Home | Calendar: Plan-It Purple | Sites A-Z | Search
Northwestern 1800 Sheridan Road Evanston, IL 60208-1800
Phone: 847-491-5000 Fax: 847-491-3040 E-mail:

Last updated  Wednesday, 23-Sep-2020 16:29:15 CDT
World Wide Web Disclaimer and University Policy Statements  
© 2002 Northwestern University