WASHINGTONJoseph 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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."