Rich Brothers' Mission to Save Afghanistan Stirs Suspicions
 
Marc Kaufman and Robert E. Pierre Washington Post Service
Friday, November 9, 2001
WASHINGTON Joseph and James Ritchie, multimillionaire brothers from Chicago, were convinced that the Afghan opposition commander Abdul Haq had the charisma and connections to unite Afghanistan and to overthrow the Taliban. That is why the Ritchies had been underwriting his efforts for more than a year, and why James Ritchie was in Mr. Haq's compound in Pakistan last month, preparing to slip into Afghanistan with the commander.
.
For years, the Ritchie brothers had been appalled by what they saw as America's confused and disengaged policy in Afghanistan, a country they lived in for a few years as children, and which they still knew well and loved.
.
The United States might not have had a clear idea of what to do in Afghanistan, but the Ritchie brothers certainly thought they did.
.
The expedition that they planned with Mr. Haq ended with his capture and execution on Oct. 26 by the Taliban. A lot of cash, which the Ritchies say was theirs, disappeared as well. James Ritchie was spared only because Mr. Haq left Peshawar without him. Mr. Haq's death was a devastating blow. But it will not bring an end to the Ritchies' involvement in Afghanistan, because Mr. Haq was only one part of their longtime campaign to help Afghans improve the country and to create a modern, representative government.
.
In the course of that campaign, the brothers have brought together rebel commanders from the Pashtun south and the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban. They have provided financing to the exiled king of Afghanistan and his circle in Rome. They have lobbied U.S. officials and the Congress on Afghan issues. All the while, they have continued to work with the Taliban on relief and development projects in Afghanistan.
.
The brothers, in effect, have run a freelance Afghan foreign policy. They said their motivation is simple: Because of their personal history in Afghanistan, they have tried to help the country out of its unending cycle of wars.
.
They have not been reined in by the U.S. government, which appears rather to have followed their lead on some key Afghan issues. But the scale, expense and private nature of their work have raised suspicions.
.
There are questions about their underlying motives and their ability to command U.S. resources. And those questions were sharpened with the news that an unmanned CIA aircraft was dispatched to assist Mr. Haq after Robert McFarlane, a former national security adviser and now a paid consultant to the Ritchies, appealed to U.S. officials.
.
Though the brothers insist that they have no secret agenda, they are stingy with details about their Afghan efforts, and those who know them do not offer much assistance to understanding.
.
Philip Smith, a Washington lobbyist and advocate on Afghan affairs who was approached by the Ritchies this year to promote their projects, said many people who worked with them had come away confused.
.
"They are often doing good things, but nobody seems to know exactly why they are doing them," Mr. Smith said. "They're kind of difficult to read."
.
Even their mother, who also has a lifelong connection to Afghanistan, could not explain her sons' motivations.
.
"I have never been political. My husband was never political. Why my kids got into this I really don't know," said Winifred Ritchie, 81. "At this point, they think they own the country. They just love the country. They just love the people."
.
The Ritchies are self-made millionaires, options traders who struck it rich by knowing when and how to take risks.
.
Brought up by evangelical Christian parents, the two men lived in Afghanistan from 1957 to 1961 while their father, Dwight, taught civil engineering and helped build Kabul University. It was a Muslim state then, as it is now. Mrs. Ritchie remembered that they had to sign contracts with the U.S. government promising that they would not proselytize.
.
Later, the elder Ritchies returned to Afghanistan, where Dwight Ritchie helped build an eye hospital in the western city of Herat. He died in 1978 and was buried in Kabul. Mrs. Ritchie still divides her time between her children's homes in Chicago and a school in Islamabad, Pakistan, where she teaches English to Afghan refugees.
.
Joseph Ritchie, 54, has been the driving force of the brothers' financial network. James Ritchie, 10 years younger, has the greater passion for Afghanistan and travels there often.
.
In separate interviews, both men agreed that it has been James Ritchie who has led his brother into Afghan intrigues and affairs.
.
Calm and understated, Joseph Ritchie described his career path from bus driver to police officer to computer programmer and then head of his own options trading company.
.
Joseph Ritchie sold the company, the Chicago Research and Trading Group, for $225 million in 1993 and said he now operates about 20 small enterprises, including real estate investing, stock trading and academic mentoring, as well as business interests in Russia and Japan. He and his wife have nine children.
.
James Ritchie has a gentle face hardened by the sun and winds of Afghanistan and his Colorado ranch. Formerly a partner in his brother's options trading business, he owns a large orchard in the state of Washington and a hotel in Colorado, where he sells Afghan handicrafts - at a loss, his brother said. He competed in the last three Iditarod dog sled races in Alaska, where he has a hunting lodge.
.
Interviewed as he passed through Washington last week on his return from Pakistan, James Ritchie spoke bitterly of the U.S.-led bombing campaign, saying that it was turning Afghans against the United States.
.
He said he knew that his words could be impolitic and that he needed the help of insiders such as Mr. McFarlane. "I'm inept in this town, and nobody wants to talk to me," he said. "You get nowhere being right in Washington. It's all knowing the right people."
.
Both brothers believe that they have an affinity for Afghans. "We just have a chemistry with them," Joseph Ritchie said.
.
But in the small circle of academics, politicians and others with long involvement in Afghanistan, one often-heard opinion is that the Ritchies are naive. Others suggested that they are driven by their egos and that their desire to be "players" led them to push Mr. Haq into action - and into danger - too soon.
.
The brothers said they actually held Mr. Haq back and noted one benefit of the failed attempt. "What Abdul Haq has done triggered an avalanche of interest - Afghans interested in following in his footsteps and Americans interested in assisting those who do," Joseph Ritchie said last week. "In the aftermath of this tragedy, we're suddenly seeing interest in helping these guys that we didn't see before."
.
The Ritchie brothers' activities before Sept. 11 laid the groundwork for their current influence. As Thomas Gouttierre, an Afghanistan expert at the University of Nebraska, said, "In the absence of an American foreign policy, they were trying to move some things forward."
.
Last summer James Ritchie traveled to Tajikistan with Mr. Haq and Peter Tomsen, who was the U.S. special envoy to the Afghan opposition during the first Bush administration.
.
There they met with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, with the goal of creating a multiethnic anti-Taliban coalition. But Mr. Massoud was assassinated Sept. 9.
.
Long before the U.S. government took notice of the exiled Afghan king, Zahir Shah, the brothers were meeting with him regularly, promoting his efforts to create a new Afghan government and donating $100,000 for his office.
.
"We know every member of the royal family, and we know them well," Joseph Ritchie said. "We've sat with them and the people on the royal executive committee many times." The Ritchie brothers have been equally busy in Washington. They organized a meeting of prominent Afghans and leading members of Congress and gained an audience with the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage. Since the mid-1900s, James Ritchie also has been deeply involved with community development and relief programs in Afghanistan and refugee camps in Pakistan. He has traveled regularly to Kabul to check on the programs, which employ about 300 people and are operated by the International Foundation of Hope, which he incorporated in 1999.
.
Some of James Ritchie's relief work has raised suspicions that he and his brother could profit from their Afghan connections, particularly after a 1998 trip that James Ritchie made to help set up small Afghan businesses. He was accompanied by Charlie Santos, who worked for a Saudi company, Delta Oil, which had been trying to build a major gas pipeline across Afghanistan.
.
Lobbying reports show that for a period in 1998 and 1999, the Ritchies and Delta had shared a lobbyist in Washington.
.
The Ritchies' private approach to traditionally public policy may be unconventional, but it has not been unwelcome to the Bush administration.
.
"We know the Ritchies were working with Abdul Haq and other Afghans, and I think they did some good in getting something going among Afghans," a State Department official said. "To the extent they are working to get Afghans involved with each other to help create a broad-based government, we have no objections at all."
WashingtonPost.comWorldPoliticsNationBusinessTechnologySports

For Related Topics See:
Americas
Front Page

< < Back to Start of Article
  Print Article Text Larger Text Small Single Column Mutli Column