The South Asia Channel

Winning American Hearts: Ghani’s Trip to the United States

Even with Ghani’s visit to the United States over, Afghanistan still has a lot of work it needs to do to make American praise stick.

Afghan President Ghani Addresses Joint Meeting Of Congress
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 25: Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani (R) expresses his country's gratitude for America's fiscal commitment and military sacrifices during an address to a joint meeting of the United States Congress with Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol March 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. Ghani and Afghanistan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah have been in Washington all week for meetings with President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other administration officials. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his first visit to the United States as Afghanistan’s leader, President Ashraf Ghani left a powerful impression. Ghani, an American educated, former World Bank senior official, displayed strong ties to the United States, having spent more than two decades in the country. He understands the United States, its politics and its heartbeat; a skill set his predecessor critically lacked. Commencing a weeklong tour, Ghani visited the Pentagon — paying homage to the 2,215 Americans who lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan, and thanking U.S. troops and taxpayers for their support in rebuilding a democratic Afghanistan. Since 2001, the U.S. government has spent close to $1 trillion in war and reconstruction efforts.

With development aid on the main agenda (second in priority only to a military extension), Ghani met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at Camp David, where the two announced the New Development Partnership — an incentive-based program aimed at boosting Afghan self-reliance and conducting reform to combat corruption, promote rule of law, strengthen women’s rights, and enhance private sector growth. To illustrate the strategic importance of U.S.-Afghan relations and to mark the renewed cooperation between the two nations, the United States agreed to provide $800 million to the New Development Partnership. The brokerage of this partnership indicates that Ghani has successfully opened the door to enhanced economic engagement between the United States and Afghanistan and has positioned himself as a partner that America wants to do business with. Through talks on the energy corridor and re-launching the Bilateral Commission and the Security Consultative Forum (both ministerial-level forums that remain currently dormant), Ghani has illustrated an astute business mind and primed commitment and ability to work with Afghanistan’s strongest — and most important — ally.

Ghani’s biggest success on the security front comes from Obama’s decision to leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2015. Their continued presence in Afghanistan will secure U.S. access to two large military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad — a strategic advantage allowing the United States to continue launching drone strikes into Pakistan from the Jalalabad airbase. Additionally, over the course of the year U.S. forces are expected to provide training and logistical support to Afghan forces, and to conduct special operations in Afghanistan. Obama is keen on preventing Afghanistan from becoming another Iraq, working to ensure that once troops withdraw they will not be forced back into the region, as they were last year in Iraq to fight ISIS.

The threat of ISIS in Afghanistan was another significant topic covered during Ghani’s visit to the United States. Based on preliminary threat assessments conducted by U.S intelligence, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that ISIS had shown limited success in recruiting in Afghanistan, but that it is “going to take a period of time to really evaluate and determine what the prospects are for it, if there are any.” Conversely, Ghani appeared to diverge from Kerry’s assessment pointing to the “clear and present danger” ISIS poses to Afghanistan and emphasizing the need to ensure that security gains in the region are lasting. Even Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated: “That’s why we need a forward deployed presence. We need to keep troops there for a while to come and make sure [ISIS] can’t get a platform.”

The potential threat of ISIS is largely problematic for Afghanistan. Though U.S. troops can assist with intelligence gathering, they have not been authorized to assist in combat missions since the end of 2014. This barrier to U.S. involvement signals that, although continued U.S. presence will provide a psychological boost to Afghan security forces, these troops will likely remain ill-prepared to assume full security responsibility in the event of a complete withdrawal. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Afghanistan’s main security force, struggles to maintain control over extensive Taliban networks and influence, particularly in the south and east of the country. The prevalence of this threat suggests that terrorist groups (both local and global) will hunker down and wait until U.S. troops are fully withdrawn from Afghanistan to emerge. Groups like al Qaeda or ISIS do not have election promises to keep or withdrawal deadlines to meet; their comparative advantage is time, namely the ability to wait for an advantageous moment to attack. Time will also allow al Qaeda to refuse any offers of negotiations made by Ghani until after U.S troops withdraw, providing the organization with leverage over any political arrangements made with the Afghan government.

Although securing a military extension may have been a top priority on Ghani’s agenda, it only signifies a temporary gain. Emerging from his first diplomatic visit to the United States, Ghani’s real victory was his ability to portray himself as a gracious and serious leader of a country requiring continuous attention and financing. As Afghanistan begins to rebuild, it has the opportunity to transition into a stable, respected and powerful nation under Ghani’s leadership. In a speech to Congress, Ghani drew on themes of self-reliance and gratitude, making sure to cultivate a lasting impression on a Congress that is deeply divided over the future of U.S.-Afghan relations.

Ghani’s speech marked a significant switch in attitude from that of his predecessor, Karzai, who maintained a reputation of being an ungrateful and hostile ally. In contrast, Ghani repeatedly thanked U.S troops as well as “the American taxpayer” for continuously supporting the growth and stabilization of Afghanistan. Promising, “Afghanistan will be the graveyard of al Qaeda and their foreign terrorist associates,” Ghani not only earned loud applause but successfully illustrated that he is a leader who understands and shares America’s concerns, all the while successfully masking desperate pleas of assistance.

Although establishing strong diplomatic relationships is important, Ghani’s real battle will be fought on the Afghan home front. Despite claiming, “[w]e don’t want your charity,” Ghani must realize that Afghanistan remains in the initial stages of economic recovery. The country’s GDP fell drastically from 9.4 percent between 2003 and 2012 to 3.7 percent in 2013 and was estimated at a meager 1.5 percent in 2014. In addition to overcoming challenges to national security, political stability, and woman’s rights, fiscal reform is imperative to the future success of Afghanistan. The Afghan drug trade has remained a dangerous issue despite efforts to eradicate the crop. Opium poppy cultivation is at an all-time high with the total area reaching close to 224,000 hectares, a 7 percent increase since 2013. Currently, 36 percent of people live below the poverty line and close to one million youth remain unemployed. Though education figures portray a positive growth, the lack of job opportunities prevent the absorption of educated youth — creating resentment and disenchantment with the system and a potential motive for radicalization.

More funding will be requested from Congress to increase the size of the ANSF to 352,000 military personnel by the end of 2017. Despite military extensions and increased funding, Ghani will have to expedite his policies and show tangible results in Afghanistan in order to secure continued U.S. aid. Although Ghani was able to leave a positive impression on American diplomats, with the absent proof of concrete results, it is unlikely that Ghani will be able to convince the United States to invest additional physical and financial resources into stabilizing Afghanistan.

The U.S media has focused on the assumption that Ghani’s success lies in the simple fact that he is not Karzai. Yet not too long ago, Karzai was in the same position as Ghani — showered with American praise and deemed as the right man for the job. Time proved that this was not the case. Challenges on the ground remained complex and little progress toward stabilization was made during Karzai’s presidency. Past experience dictates that “winning heart and minds” is not enough. Afghanistan is far too complex a landscape to navigate solely on rhetoric and the fact that the president has yet to efficiently form a full cabinet does not bode well for a country that poses insurmountable opportunities yet unparalleled challenges.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Arsla Jawaid is the former Managing Editor at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI). She is currently pursuing an M.A. degree in International Affairs at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @arslajawaid. @arslajawaid

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