He will get a much warmer welcome than the man he replaced, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will likely have the same priorities as did predecessor Hamid Karzai when he begins his first trip as president to Washington next week — seeking hard promises of support from the Obama administration as Kabul battles the Taliban insurgency and struggles to rebuild its economy.
Mr. Ghani, a onetime anthropologist and former World Bank executive, will meet with President Obama as well as Secretary of State John F. Kerry to discuss possible changes to Mr. Obama’s timetable to withdraw the bulk of American troops helping to bolster Afghanistan’s still-struggling military.
The new president will travel with Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister who was defeated by Mr. Ghani after a protracted electoral battle last fall. The trip also will include an address to a joint session of Congress and a stop in New York for talks at the United Nations.
The new president has already vastly improved the atmospherics of the U.S.-Afghan relations since his September election, in contrast to the frequent and public clashes that were the norm in the later years of Mr. Karzai’s tenure. One early result: a bilateral security agreement long blocked under Mr. Karzai was signed almost as soon as Mr. Ghani took office, allowing up to 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country to train and advise Afghanistan’s security forces.
The new president “has been saying and doing things that are music to Washington’s ears,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst, at a briefing this week at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.
In another sign of improved bilateral ties, the Obama administration has reportedly slowed down its military exit schedule in Afghanistan and has abandoned plans to cut the number of troops there down to 5,500. Just how many American troops are going to remain in the region is one of the issues likely to be decided during Mr. Ghani’s visit.
Army General John. F Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has expressed his belief that the Afghan security forces will soon be capable of defending against the Taliban on their own, according to a report by Reuters.
“Right now I think we’re comfortable looking at ‘15 and ‘16,” Gen. Campbell told reporters during a recent visit by new U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to Kabul.
Leaving Afghanistan too early could jeopardize the stability that the U.S. has spent 13 years trying to establish, according to former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. Such support would help Afghanistan defend against the lingering threat of the Taliban.
“Having the full backing of the United States [and] the international community is critical to strengthening Afghanistan’s hand if they are going to be able to negotiate with the Taliban,” said Ms. Flournoy, “[if] the Taliban actually does come to the table.”
But Mr. Ghani still faces significant headwinds back home, including difficulties filling his Cabinet and economic instability and corruption in what is still one of the world’s poorest nations.
Mr. Ghani’s efforts to unify the country with ex-rival Mr. Abdullah have met with mixed success, with the effort to build the most inclusive government possible complicating the task for filling key government jobs.
“President Karzai was not acting as a commander in chief,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, the head of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, a research institute in Kabul, at a briefing his week by the Center for a New American Security.
“President Ghani, on the first day in office, is trying to act as a commander in chief, reaching out to the army; looking into the different layers of the Security Forces, understanding what are their major problems, and running some of the operations in direct involvement of himself” in conflict areas around the country.
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