These days, his Western business suits and ties have given way to Afghan turbans and tunics. Instead of anthropology students and fellow faculty members at the Johns Hopkins University, tribal elders and international aid officials are more likely to seek his ear.
Also left behind is the inviting stucco home overlooking a stream in Roland Park for one in Kabul with walls fortified against explosions and protected by armed guards — with good reason.
"That hospital is 300 meters from my house," Ashraf Ghani said by phone this week, on a day when three American doctors were killed in an attack at a Cure International Hospital. "My late mother used to be there. It is a remarkable group of people there. It's just terrible."
The man who would be the next president of Afghanistan leads a vastly different life than he did as an anthropology professor in Baltimore, which he left in 1991 first for the World Bank and then for the immense challenges of rebuilding and serving as finance minister of his war-battered homeland.
Preliminary results released Saturday show Ghani, 64, running second with 32 percent of the vote to former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, with 45 percent, among 11 candidates — although officials are investigating fraud complaints and contested ballots before certifying the race — and a runoff election between the two front-runners, required if no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, is likely as early as May 28.
While Ghani looks back fondly at his time here — the heady intellectual climate on campus, the warm neighborhood where he and his wife raised two children — he gave it up without hesitation.
"My country needed me," he says simply. "You don't feel it's a sacrifice, but that it's a calling."
The country's needs loom large, with U.S.-led troops scheduled to pull out this year and Afghanistan facing its first transfer of presidential power since Hamid Karzai took office as the country's first democratically elected head of state in 2004.
Ghani said he expects to emerge victorious over Abdullah. In the meantime, there is much intrigue over possible coalitions forming in advance of the runoff, although Ghani said he wants no part of that.
"I am not a deal-maker," Ghani said. "When millions of people vote for you, it is an incredible, sacred trust."
Win or lose, it has already been a remarkable journey — for both Ghani and Afghanistan, where the April 5 election drew long, enthusiastic lines of voters despite Taliban insurgent threats to disrupt the polling.
"It was an act of courage," said Shabana Basij-Rasikh, 24, an Afghan educator who was in Baltimore recently to receive an award from the student-run Foreign Affairs Symposium at Hopkins. "That act of courage is indicative of people's desire for change."
For many, those hopes lie in the candidacy of Ghani, who since returning to Afghanistan in 2002 has been key to its reconstruction. He replaced its unworkable currency, for example, and implemented a community-directed redevelopment program that funneled billions of dollars in foreign aid into the building of schools, roads, power plants and other basic infrastructure.
'He's really brilliant'
Exiled first by the communist revolution and Soviet invasion in the late 1970s, then by the Taliban takeover in the 1990s, Ghani was hired at Hopkins as a freshly minted Ph.D. in 1983.
"He's really brilliant," said Niloofar Haeri, who chairs the Hopkins anthropology department. "He's one of the very few people I can use that adjective for without reservation.
"In some ways, he's quite intimidating for some people because he's so no-nonsense. Some people have found him a bit impatient. But I always learned from him."
The sting of his impatience was usually felt by students who failed to live up to his high standards, said Sidney Mintz, who with two former Yale professors started the Hopkins anthropology department in the mid-1970s. Mintz said he always felt Ghani preferred the back-and-forth with other professors.
"He liked very much the discourse with his colleagues, listening to people present their papers," Mintz said. "I remember when he'd read something of mine he would always have insights."
The city still holds a special place for Ghani.