The Cable

Ghani: Afghanistan Can Serve as Roadblock to Extremism Along New Silk Road

The Afghan president calls his country a keystone to future prosperity in Central Asia — but first needs help in stopping the spread of religious extremism.

ghani

Because of its location, history, and potential exports, Afghanistan is poised to be the keystone for a new Silk Road of trade across Asia. But first, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Wednesday, the nation must serve as a roadblock to spreading extremism.

In a 53-minute address to the U.S. Congress on March 25 that was punctuated with repeated thanks to Americans and even a few laugh lines, Ghani described his poor and fragile country as at the heart of a new dawn of prosperity reaching through Central Asia. In part, he said, that will come as Afghans themselves embrace much-needed reforms to curb corruption and embrace new justice and internal financial systems. He predicted Afghan women will play increasingly growing roles in government and business as more are educated and accepted as equals in society.

But first things first. “Let me now turn to the elephant that is lurking in the back of the room,” Ghani told lawmakers. “We must secure peace.”

He spoke of a “dark cloud” on Afghanistan’s horizon: the Islamic State terrorist group and other religious extremists that must be countered by Muslim leaders, scholars, and other prominent figures who disabuse the militants’ claim to Islam. “We are willing to speak truth to terror,” Ghani said.

“Properly supported, Afghanistan is uniquely positioned to block the spread of extremism,” Ghani said.

It was a fervent — if already familiar — case for keeping a steady number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan instead of sticking to old deadlines for troop withdrawal. A day earlier, Ghani and U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to retain an estimated 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan though the rest of the year instead of cutting the force by nearly half by 2016. However, all U.S. troops are still expected to depart by the end of next year.

Ghani again repeated his deep appreciation and heartfelt thanks to the U.S. military for its nearly 14 years of attempts to stabilize Afghanistan, a mission that began just a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Afghan president said he was in Manhattan that day, at his office at the World Bank, and made a point to visit Ground Zero later that week. He spoke movingly about his love for New York, where he and his wife were educated at Columbia University, and his devotion to corned beef sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen.

Congress ate up the address, giving Ghani several standing ovations and chuckling at his references to Afghans skateboarding and playing volleyball. It was a far cry from the stilted receptions that Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, was used to receiving in Washington, and sought to foster a better relationship with Kabul.

Kabul has a long way to go, Ghani said, and still needs Washington’s help if it is to succeed.

“I’m not here to tell you a story about an overnight transformation of my country,” he said. “We live in a rough neighborhood. We are a very poor country. Self-reliance is our goal.”

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla /Getty 

Lara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband. @larajakesFP

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