WASHINGTON — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrived in Washington on Sunday for his first official visit to the United States since taking office in January.
The highly anticipated visit marks the latest chapter in an evolving U.S.-Afghan relationship — one that seems to be warming even as the governments seek to bridge the gap on key security issues.
At the outset, U.S. officials say they hope to use the opportunity presented by this visit to build up the bilateral relationship, which has improved greatly since Ghani took over from his predecessor, former President Hamid Karzai.
“This is a different relationship than we had under President Karzai,” Jeff Eggers, special assistant to the President for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters in a conference call Friday. “It’s clearly more cooperative and better.”
In particular, Ghani’s government has demonstrated a greater receptiveness to continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
In one of his first acts as president, Ghani signed a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which allowed U.S. troops to remain in the country, and which Karzai had refused to sign.
But the Ghani and Obama administrations are not entirely aligned when it comes to their security cooperation, and talks this week at both the White House and Camp David are likely to include a heavy emphasis on how the U.S. can best support Afghanistan’s continued war with the Taliban.
Ghani is expected to press President Barack Obama to reconsider the pace of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, seeking greater flexibility to counter the continued threat posed by violent extremists, just three months after the U.S. officially ended it’s combat mission there.
Currently, there are 9,800 U.S. troops providing training and support in Afghanistan, as well as 3,000 troops from other NATO countries.
The Obama administration plans to reduce that number to about 5,500 by the end of this year before withdrawing completely by the end of 2016.
But Ghani has made clear to Obama in recent conversations that such a timeline could jeopardize the security situation on the ground as Afghan forces continue to fight back the Taliban and al Qaeda.
“Deadlines concentrate the mind. But deadlines should not be dogmas,” Ghani told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in January.
“If both parties or, in this case, multiple partners, have done their best to achieve the objectives and progress is very real, then there should be willingness to re-examine a deadline,” he said.
In an appearance aired Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Ghani again praised the U.S. troops and warned of what might come of their absence.
“The result is that America has been secure, thank God,” he said. “There’s been no terrorist attack on mainland United States. We have been the front line. Meanwhile, what needs to be underlined is while tragedy brought us together, there are common interests that now can be articulated very clearly. The threats that we are facing on a daily basis, were they, God forbid, to overwhelm us, will threaten the world at large.”
U.S. officials say Obama is considering Ghani’s request, but has not made up his mind. This week’s visit offers the opportunity for the Afghan president to make his case in person.
Already, there are signs the U.S. might be willing to acquiesce to Ghani’s appeal in order to prevent a further spread of violence.
Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has presented Obama with recommendations for the U.S. to support the Ghani government’s security strategy, Eggers said.
“So, absolutely, we expect some discussion of President Ghani’s request for flexibility,” he said. “I expect that the President will have something to say about that in his press conference at the back end of President Ghani’s visit to the White House on Tuesday, but no decisions have yet been made on that.”
Last year was one of the deadliest years of the now 13-year-old conflict, with high casualty rates among Afghan security forces, police and civilians. And violence is likely to increase in the coming months as fighting intensifies.
Campbell told lawmakers at a congressional hearing last month he is “concerned” about the summer season, when fighting with the Taliban typically reaches its highest levels. With coalition combat troops gone from Afghanistan, there is fear Taliban and al Qaeda fighters could seek to capitalize on their absence.
“A lack of presence creates a vacuum, and we’ve seen what fills that vacuum in Syria and Iraq,” Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at the same hearing. “The ungoverned spaces will allow terrorists to foment the same disaster in Afghanistan as we have seen in Iraq — growing instability, terrorist safe havens and direct threats to the United States.”
Another parallel to Iraq: The emergence in recent months of Afghan extremists pledging alliance to the terror group ISIS.
Lawmakers including McCain have expressed concern about this phenomenon, but so far, the administration is hesitant to play up their significance.
In last month’s hearing, Campbell called the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan “nascent,” and “more of a re-branding of a few marginalized Taliban,” though he insists the administration is taking it seriously.
“It is a concern to President Ghani, therefore, a concern to me,” he said. “But we continue to work that with our Afghan partners and to make sure that we understand where this is going inside of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
During a trip to Afghanistan last month, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said such groups are “in small numbers and aspirational.”
Ghani, who is joined on this visit by Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday night for a small dinner to set the agenda for the visit.
He and Abdullah will visit the Pentagon on Monday morning to address before heading to Camp David for a full day of meetings with Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and others in the administration.
On Tuesday, they will spend several hours at the White House, where Obama and Ghani will hold a joint press conference.
The Afghan delegation will also meet with congressional and civil society leaders while in Washington, and will wrap up their trip on Thursday with meetings at the United Nations in New