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What's a Chicago Businessman With Links to Rwanda's Paul Kagame Doing in Afghan Politics?

On July 22, a foreigner in a blue button-down shirt and black shades entered an audit center in Kabul where U.N. and international observers were overseeing a massive effort to investigate all 8 million votes cast in June's presidential runoff election between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

According to Sadat Naderi, head of Ghani's observer team, the foreigner interrupted a conversation he was having with a U.N. official to say that the check marks on a number of ballots in favor of Ghani looked identical and should be considered invalid.

The warehouse where the audit was taking place was swarming with foreigners, but this person wasn't wearing any official badge. When Naderi asked to see some identification, the foreigner said he didn't have any.

"We said, my goodness, how did you get in here? How do you have the guts to interfere with such an important matter and a very sensitive process?" Naderi recalled.

At that point, confusion broke out. Worried that somehow the process was being tampered with, the Ghani campaign suspended its participation, and the police and members of the media were called. The audit was put on hold while rumors began spreading about the situation.

"We really don't know how many days he was there, and we really don't know how many other people were there," Naderi said.

Except for speculation on Twitter, his identity was never revealed.

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan confirmed to Foreign Policy that the man's name is Tim Shirk, an American and a 2009 graduate of George Mason University's law school who most recently worked as a private-sector advisor to former Malawian President Joyce Banda. Earlier in his career, Shirk was an advisor to the minister of justice in Rwanda.

So what brought him to Kabul? Turns out, he traveled there at the suggestion of his boss, Joe Ritchie, a legendary Chicago options and commodities trader and a longtime player in Afghan politics who's now quietly backing the Abdullah campaign.

While Ritchie says the July 22 incident was "a tempest in a teapot," it revealed the role that outside advisors are playing in Afghan politics today. It also showed how much is at stake in this audit, where the two candidates' teams are fighting over every vote.

It may come as no surprise to learn that candidates in foreign elections have hired U.S. political consultants for advice. In 2009, Democratic strategist James Carville drew a lot of attention when he signed on with Ghani as he campaigned against incumbent Hamid Karzai and Abdullah. This year, Ghani once again hired a number of Washington-based consultants, including the firms Roberti+White and Sanitas International.

Before helping with media relations for Ghani, Sanitas had a contract with Ritchie to help raise Abdullah's profile and to promote free and fair elections in Afghanistan.

"Sanitas never worked for Abdullah Abdullah or his campaign directly, but were [registered with the U.S. Justice Department] as such because of Ritchie's involvement as a key advisor and supporter," said Christopher Harvin, a partner at Sanitas. "Shortly after our original work ended in June, Dr. Ghani's campaign directly hired the Sanitas team to support strategic messaging, outreach, and direct media engagement."

While both campaigns have formal and informal advisors, Ritchie's involvement is unique. He is the first to admit that he's not being paid and has signed no contract with the Abdullah team.

"I'm a friend of Afghanistan that would love to see Afghanistan with a government that the population feels is legitimate and represents them. It's that simple," he told FP.

But to his critics, Ritchie's involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere is anything but simple.

He is president and founder of Fox River Financial Resources, which, according to Ritchie's bio, "deals in hedge funds, venture capital funds, direct equity investments, real estate, and proprietary trading strategies."

Beyond Afghanistan, Ritchie has also advised Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who named him the founding CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. Ritchie has also worked on behalf of Banda in Malawi and was deeply involved in the May election, which she lost. His larger-than-life biography includes businesses in Russia and Japan, not to mention his extracurricular activities: breaking speed records for turboprop aircraft and helping friends with things like circumnavigating the globe in a balloon.

But Ritchie's involvement in Afghanistan predates these other pursuits. He spent part of his childhood living there, an experience that has kept his family closely tied to the country. His father, a civil engineer and a minister, helped build a hospital in Herat and was buried in Kabul when he died in 1978, according to a 2001 profile by the Washington Post.

Ritchie's brother, James, has also remained very active in the country. He is the founder of the International Foundation of Hope, a Colorado-based nonprofit for Afghanistan that focuses on "economic development, community empowerment, and education," according to its website.

When it comes to Afghanistan, though, the Ritchie brothers are best known for having financed the famous Afghan opposition commander Abdul Haq and his unsuccessful effort to create a popular uprising against the Taliban in the month following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Haq was captured and executed by Taliban forces in October 2001, despite an effort by the Ritchies to have the CIA intervene and save him.

Some people still blame the Ritchies for Haq's death.

Back then, the Ritchies "exercised a high degree of influence, despite their lack of knowledge and good sense," a former U.S. government official said.

There's a temptation to view the Ritchie brothers as controlling and scheming businessmen working behind the scenes, a former Defense official said, but he warned against buying into conspiracy theories.

"I don't think they play as big a role as some people think," the official said, adding that they are a factor in Afghan politics but not a dominant one.

As for what motivates their involvement, it's a mixture of business and personal interests, including what the former Defense official described as a "messianic impulse."

"They are often doing good things, but nobody seems to know exactly why they are doing them.... They're kind of difficult to read," Philip Smith, a Washington lobbyist, told the Washington Post in 2001.

After Haq's death, Joe Ritchie pulled back from the Afghan political scene but stayed in touch with Haq's brother, Nasrullah Baryalai Arsalai, who, according to Ritchie, "picked up the flag" of his slain brother, promoting a decentralized political system for Afghanistan "of local leaders, tribal elders, being at the root of the power structure."

"This is the only way Afghanistan has ever worked," Ritchie said.

After years away, Ritchie began to get involved again when Baryalai came to him and said Abdullah was promoting a similar platform.

Today, Ritchie says he's far less involved than he was with Haq. For the Abdullah campaign, he may brainstorm with the team and introduce them to people in Washington, "but I'm not under any kind of contract," he said, adding, "I don't have any business or potential business in Afghanistan."

Despite Ritchie's past involvement in Afghan affairs, his current participation remains widely unknown. This is most likely on purpose.

"There is widespread suspicion of any involvement by foreigners in Afghan politics," said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul.

This is especially true right now when Afghanistan is in such a volatile political position.

The presidential election's first round was in April, when Abdullah won the most votes but not more than 50 percent, the threshold necessary for an outright victory.

A runoff election between Abdullah and Ghani, a former finance minister, took place June 14. This time Ghani emerged the winner but soon allegations of fraud marred his victory.

Turnout for the runoff election was much higher than expected and Abdullah's team charged that as many as 2 million of the 8.1 million ballots cast could be fraudulent.

Without a declared winner, the political crisis grew worse in early July, when Abdullah's supporters threatened to form a parallel government and provoke civil unrest if Ghani became president. Secretary of State John Kerry intervened, brokering an audit and an agreement that no matter who won, a unity government would be formed.

Now, Afghanistan and the United States are holding their breath to see whether this recount could bring the country back from the brink of civil war. Already, it's taking longer than either party or the United States would like.

The audit has been halted several times, including after Shirk's July 22 interruption.

According to a Facebook post that has since been removed, Shirk arrived at the Kabul airport on July 14. He had been working in Malawi for Banda, who was defeated in May in what's been called "a bitter and chaotic election."

Shirk's trip was half-personal, half-business, according to Ritchie. "He has friends in Kabul and so I said: 'Why don't you go visit your friends in Kabul and see what's going on there?'... Of course, since my No. 1 friend in Kabul is Baryalai, I introduced them."

Shirk did some informal advising for the Abdullah team, Ritchie said, and on July 22, they took him to the audit center to get him a badge as a campaign representative.

While waiting for the badge, Shirk had a look around, leading to the confrontation, Ritchie said.

"This happened to be the day they started to look at some of the boxes from places like Paktia and Paktika, so everyone was uptight and tense," Ritchie said. "It was a perfect day to make a big thing of it because they needed something diversionary."

Whether Shirk meant to or not, his presence deepened the suspicion between the two campaigns. He has since left Afghanistan and is working again for Banda in Washington, D.C. (Shirk did not respond to a request for comment.)

"The disruption was unhelpful because of the delays, and it's something that undermined the trust between the two candidates, who are fighting over every ballot now," said Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Smith knew the details of the July 22 incident but had not heard Shirk's name before or his connection to the Abdullah campaign.

He said he's worried that the audit is taking too long and that the country needs a political resolution as soon as possible.

For Jed Ober, director of programs at Democracy International, the July 22 disruption highlighted the problems inherent in the flawed audit process.

Before it started, the two sides "hadn't agreed on invalidation criteria; they hadn't agreed on jurisdiction as to who was going to make decisions, so once they actually got to a ballot box that had clear signs of fraud in one candidate's favor, this was bound to happen," Ober said.

Last week seemed like a breakthrough, though, after Kerry once again flew to Kabul to quash the rising tension. He was able to convince both sides to accept the results of the audit and urged them not to get bogged down fighting over every ballot.

"We are committed to the audit process which is underway, and we will be cooperative in pursuing and pushing it in order to complete it," Abdullah said on Aug. 8, after the agreement was reached.

Following Abdullah's comments, Ghani said: "The country cannot take uncertainty; uncertainty is a threat. Our action today and in following weeks should create an environment of certainty and trust. We trust each other."

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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Obama Won't Set Timetable for Iraq as Airstrikes, Humanitarian Aid Continue

This story has been updated.

President Barack Obama sought to manage expectations about the new American involvement in Iraq, saying that it will take more than weeks to "solve this problem," and setting the stage for an open-ended but still limited role for the U.S. military there.

"This is going to be a long-term project," Obama said on the White House North Lawn Saturday morning as he reiterated that American combat troops would not be deployed to conduct ground operations there. 

In the meantime, as U.S. forces conduct humanitarian operations and airstrikes to protect American military personnel and citizens in northern Iraq, what's important, Obama said, is for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to reach a political settlement to allow all Iraqis to feel a part of the government. That, he said, is a "long-term campaign."

"We can help, we can advise, but we can't do it for them, and the U.S. military cannot do it for them," Obama said. 

Still, Obama seemed to indicate that the airstrikes, military assistance and humanitarian aid mission that began Thursday would not be over anytime soon. The commander-in-chief said he would not set a timetable for ending U.S. engagement there.

Obama spoke just minutes before boarding a jet bound for Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on his way to a family vacation on Martha's Vineyard, where he's expected to be monitoring the situation closely over the next several days. 

The U.S. military conducted two rounds of airstrikes Friday near the Kurdish capital of Erbil, using Predator drones and Navy F/A-18 fighter jets to destroy Sunni militant positions, including an artillery battery militants were using to shell Kurdish forces, as well as a convoy of vehicles belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

The Pentagon also announced early Saturday that the military had conducted a second drop of humanitarian supplies for the thousands of Iraqi citizens stranded on Mount Sinjar. In all, more than 130 bundles of water and food have been dropped for the thousands of displaced Iraqis starving and thirsty, who have taken refuge on the mountain. Obama said he hopes to create a "safe corridor" to allow some of those refugees to move out of the area, but he conceded it would take some time. 

In a short exchange with reporters outside the White House on Saturday, the President was asked if he regretted removing all combat troops from Iraq in 2011, as he ultimately expects to do in Afghanistan. Obama explained that bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq was the result of the failure of the Iraqi government at the time to agree to security protections that would have allowed those troops to stay - not a decision made by the White House. Critics of the administration believe Obama, who staked his 2008 campaign on ending the war in Iraq, never wanted troops to remain there anyway, despite the fact that on the surface, it was the Iraqi government who refused the deal.

"Let's just be clear," Obama said. "The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were - a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically, they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq. 

Obama said that if American troops had remained, he would have had "a much bigger job" protecting them today. "So the entire analysis is bogus and is wrong," he said.

Military officials have said the airstrikes underway over the last two days will likely continue for the next several days at the very least. Although Obama's broader strategy remains unclear for now, those airstrikes seek both to contain ISIS' advance and to protect Erbil from falling, as well as to protect American military personnel there and in the region.

Indeed, after first signing orders to deploy American troops to Iraq this June to assess the Iraqi security forces, Obama, in justifying the airstrikes, has relied heavily on the rationale that he must now protect them and other American citizens and interests in the region. There are more than 800 military personnel in Iraq who arrived under three separate deployments since June. That includes about 90 advisors who conducted the assessment, another 150 assigned to two "joint operation centers," one in Erbil, one in Baghdad, and about 450 additional security troops. One hundred military personnel assigned to the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad were already in Iraq. 

Obama's return to Iraq this week -- the airstrikes are the first since before U.S. forces completed their withdrawal in December 2011 - was a significant development in the President's Iraq strategy. But the White House insists the scope of the mission remains limited, allowing it to enjoy, for now,  bipartisan support from members of Congress who oversee national security and defense policy.

"The President's decision to use force in Iraq was appropriate given the circumstances," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "We must all understand that ISIS threatens both the Iraqi people and poses a clear and present danger to the United States."

The most senior Democrats serving on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees also offered their support. "In this case, the U.S. military has the ability and the capability to confront ISIS, protect an innocent population under threat of genocide and provide some relief," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.). "I applaud the administration for taking this opportunity."

While Congress is likely to be broadly supportive of a limited strike, the president will be exposed to criticism from anti-war liberals and some libertarian Republicans.

On Thursday the United States began dropping food aid to stranded religious minorities in northern Iraq. As many as 40,000 Yazidi refugees are trapped on the Sinjar mountain and they are slowly running out of food and water. Defense officials said Thursday's humanitarian mission was conducted from a number of air bases within the U.S. Central Command "area of responsibility" and included one C-17 jet and two C-130 cargo jets. The two dropped a total of 72 bundles of supplies. The cargo jets were accompanied by two F/A-18s and the mission did not require U.S. ground troops, according to the Pentagon.

The C-17 jet dropped 40 "bundles" of fresh drinking water and a C-130 dropped 16 additional bundles, totaling 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water. Another C-130 dropped another 16 bundles, totaling 8,000 meals ready-to-eat, or MREs. The airplanes spent about 15 minutes over the area, at a low altitude, according to the Pentagon.

The amount of supplies already dropped, however, only amount to food and water for about 16,000 people. Administration officials indicated they expected there to be more humanitarian relief supplies dropped in coming days. 

Residents of Iraq's largest Christian city, Qaraqosh, which is home to some 50,000 followers, fled as the Sunni militants advanced toward Erbil, targeting Iraq's religious minorities along the way.

"ISIL has called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide," Obama said Thursday night.

Obama on Saturday said he spoke with both British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francoise Hollande, both of whom expressed continued support the humanitarian operation.

On Thursday night, the United Nations Security Council condemned the assault and called for an international response. The council noted that the atrocities could be crimes against humanity. Britain, which holds the presidency of the Security Council for August, issued a statement from Cameron supporting the American action.

"I welcome President Obama's decision to accept the Iraqi government's request for help and to conduct targeted U.S. airstrikes, if necessary, to help Iraqi forces as they fight back against ISIL terrorists to free the civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar," Cameron stated.

The Islamic State also captured Iraq's largest dam on Thursday, the Mosul dam on the Tigris River, which could lead to more U.S. airstrikes intended to protect the massive structure in Mosul which, if militants destroyed, would send a catastrophically large wall of water downriver.

"I've said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there's a crisis in the world," Obama said Thursday in explaining his rationale for taking action. "So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain -- with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help -- in this case, a request from the Iraqi government -- and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.

"We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide," he continued. "That's what we're doing on that mountain."

Obama's red line for Iraq is no ground operations. Of course if the troops must protect themselves for any reason and get into a shooting fight with Islamic militants, this quickly could become an issue of semantics for the American public.

"We are not launching a sustained U.S. campaign against [ISIS] here," a senior administration official told reporters late Thursday in a briefing, reiterating a point Obama made earlier in the night.

Troops assigned to the joint operation centers are coordinating airstrikes and other operations but they are not "calling in airstrikes," a Defense official said. That would require them to essentially be in combat. "Yes, they are providing input into which positions to take out," the official said, "but they are not calling in airstrikes." 

Despite the actions he authorized, Obama ended his remarks by noting that in the long term, Iraq's people will have to sort out then unstable political situation themselves.

"There is no American military solution to the larger problem in Iraq," Obama said.

U.N. officials estimate that there are as many as 200,000 new refugees seeking safety in Iraq's Kurdish north. The Islamic State seized the city of Sinjar, the Yazidis' ancestral home some 75 miles west of Mosul, on Sunday as part of this wider offensive, causing the city's inhabitants to flee into the mountains. Unlike Christians, who are often given the choice of converting or paying a tax to save their lives, the Islamic State has killed the Yazidis by the hundreds, sometimes taking them as slaves.

John Hudson and Thomas Stackpole contributed to this report.

 

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images