WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama welcomes Afghanistan’s new president to the White House on Tuesday with a fraught question staring them in the face: Will the U.S. slow its departure from Afghanistan – and for how long?
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani represents Obama’s last, best hope to make good on his promise to end America’s longest war by the time he leaves office, keeping just a thousand or so troops at the embassy to co-ordinate security. Ghani predecessor Hamid Karzai’s relationship with the White House was increasingly dysfunctional, and if the dealings with Ghani don’t turn out better, Obama risks leaving Afghanistan still vulnerable to the kinds of violent extremist groups that operated with impunity until 14 years ago, when the U.S. attacked after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Ghani comes to the White House aiming to prove he’s a reliable partner worthy of U.S. support, despite his fractured government and a litany of problems still rampant in Afghanistan’s military – illiteracy, drug abuse and desertions, to name a few.
Most critically, Ghani is asking the president to keep more U.S. troops in his country for longer, as Afghan forces brace for a tough spring fighting season and contend with Islamic State fighters looking to recruit Afghans.
“We do not now ask what the United States can do for us,” Ghani said, invoking John F. Kennedy as he opened his U.S. visit on Monday. “We want to say what Afghanistan will do for itself and for the world.”
In the run-up to their meeting, the prospect of the U.S. slowing its exit has become almost a foregone conclusion, with officials predicting the U.S. will likely leave many of the 9,800 American troops there now long into next year. The original plan was to cut to 5,500 by the end of 2015.
Also at stake: the future of U.S. bases in Jalalabad and in Kandahar, where the Taliban had their capital until 2001. U.S. military leaders have seemed receptive to Ghani’s request that those bases stay open as long as possible.
Obama and Ghani were to discuss the pace of withdrawal on Tuesday during meetings and a working lunch at the White House – the centerpiece of Ghani’s highly anticipated visit to Washington. In the days before the visit, White House officials suggested that Obama was likely to announce his troop decision when he and Ghani take questions from reporters in the East Room Tuesday afternoon.
Ghani, who lived in the U.S. for more than a decade, has been a welcome change for the Obama administration. Frustration with his predecessor reached a boiling point when Karzai refused to sign the security agreements needed for the U.S. to leave troops in Afghanistan. Ghani signed them within days of taking office, and has sought to differentiate himself by showing appreciation for U.S. investment in his military – more than a $60 billion investment, so far.
After hotly contested election results, Ghani and chief rival Abdullah Abdullah agreed to share power, with Abdullah assuming the new role of chief executive. They made the trip to the U.S. together in a show of unity.
Yet political tensions have prevented the leaders from even putting together a full cabinet, six months into their term.
Imbuing the visit with added anxiety is a new, home-grown affiliate of the Islamic State group, whose flagship branch in Iraq and Syria is another menace to Obama’s legacy on foreign policy. It’s not fully clear how strong or widespread the offshoot’s presence is in Afghanistan.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.