Embracing New Afghan President, U.S. Says Ghani Is No Hamid Karzai

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's visit to Washington is expected to reflect a new, cooperative relationship between his country and the United States.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C), Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah (R) and former president Hamid Karzai look on during a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the death of former vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim at the loya jirga hall in Kabul on March 9, 2015. Former Afghan vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim died of natural causes after a turbulent life that reflected the country's recent past. Fahim, a leader of the Tajik ethnic minority, was senior vice-president under President Hamid Karzai. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington is gearing up for Sunday’s arrival of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose message to the Obama administration and Congress on his first trip to the United States is: I am not Hamid Karzai.

Instead, Ghani will be eager to show that he is an “adequate strategic partner,” the phrase former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry used to describe what Karzai was not. Rather than wanting U.S. troops out sooner rather than later, as Karzai insisted, Ghani doesn’t want to see them go.

With such a willing partner to work with, the Obama administration has indicated that changes to its current troop withdrawal plans are likely.

“This is a qualitatively different relationship than we had with President Karzai,” said Jeff Eggers, senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council (NSC).

Simply put: It’s better, Eggers said in a call with reporters Friday.

But no decisions have been made yet with regard to troop levels, according to Eggers. However, he said, the NSC discussed options this week that were created by Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in preparation for Ghani’s visit.

Ghani’s presidency is a big reason why the White House is considering slowing down its exit from Afghanistan. But another decisive factor is the fierce fighting that continues between the Taliban and government forces. The United Nations found that 2014 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since it began keeping track of casualties in 2009.

Also contributing to the change in approach is the emergence of the Islamic State, and the concern that any gains made over the last 13 years in Afghanistan could disappear as they did in Iraq after U.S. troops left in 2011 and the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces collapsed last summer.

Today, the United States has roughly 10,000 troops still deployed in Afghanistan, with plans to reduce that to 5,500 by the end of this year. By 2017, the current plan calls for all troops to leave except a small, residual force located at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Ghani has not been shy about his desire for the United States to reconsider its withdrawal plan, telling CBS’s 60 Minutes in January that “deadlines should not be dogmas.”

If Karzai were still president, “then I would have been the first to say remove U.S. troops,” said Andrew Wilder, vice president for South and Central Asia at the United States Institute of Peace, where Ghani is scheduled to speak Wednesday evening.

The United States “was working at cross-purposes with Karzai, but now we have partners that want to make this work,” Wilder said.

Washington also needs to wait and see what happens during this year’s “fighting season,” which starts in a few months when the weather gets warmer, Wilder added.

Other big factors that could shape U.S. withdrawal plans are peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government that are rumored to be resuming soon. The United States is also waiting to see how well the unity government between Ghani and his political competitor-turned-partner, Abdullah Abdullah, operates. Abdullah, who lost to Ghani in last summer’s hotly contested presidential election, is now serving as Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, a position created for him to ensure peace in the country. Many cabinet positions and governorships remain unfilled, though, while concerns grow that Ghani may be consolidating too much power.

In the meantime, a new spirit of partnership between Afghanistan and the United States is expected to permeate Ghani’s trip, and perhaps where it will be most evident is during his Monday visit to the Pentagon, where he’ll thank U.S. troops for the sacrifices they’ve made for his country.

This is in stark contrast to Karzai, whose comments at times were so inflammatory that U.S. commanders worried they would incite attacks against American troops in the country.

“I don’t expect there to be a contentious part of this visit,” said Dan Feldman, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We have two extremely able, competent partners, with a very different approach toward the bilateral relationship with the U.S., and a very different vision for what’s best for Afghanistan, and one that is very much in alignment with what we have laid out from security to economics to international partnerships to reconciliation,” Feldman said.

Reintroducing Afghanistan as a willing and grateful partner will also be a theme during Ghani’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, Wilder said.

The Afghan delegation arrives Sunday and will have a small dinner that evening with Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the White House.

After the visit to the Pentagon on Monday morning, the Afghan delegation will travel to Camp David, where they will be hosted by Kerry. Joining them will be Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Gen. Campbell.

At Camp David, there will be three separate sessions. The first will be chaired by Carter and will focus on Afghanistan’s strategic security overview. During a working lunch, Kerry will lead a discussion on regional engagement. Finally, Lew will chair the last session, on Afghanistan’s economic transition.

On Tuesday morning, Ghani will have a breakfast meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and then will make a trip to Arlington Cemetery. After that, the delegation will head to the White House for about five hours’ worth of meetings, and then will attend a dinner hosted by Kerry.

On Wednesday, Ghani will address Congress, a visit coordinated with the White House.


Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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