KABUL, Afghanistan — As the Afghan president heads to the United States on his first trip to Washington as head of state, the landmark visit offers a chance for both sides to start afresh and wipe the slate clean on the legacy of troubled U.S-Afghan relations.
Ashraf Ghani faces a daunting task — long-term, the visit could set the tone for years to come. More pressingly, Ghani needs firm commitment of American military support in his fight against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including an Islamic State affiliate, which he and U.S. military leaders fear is finding a foothold in Afghanistan.
Ghani’s relationship with Washington stands in stark contrast to that of his acrimonious predecessor, Hamid Karzai, whose antagonism toward the U.S. culminated in a refusal to sign security agreements with Washington and NATO before leaving office. Ghani signed the pacts within days of becoming president in September, and has since enjoyed a close relationship with U.S. diplomats and military leaders.
“It’s important for Afghanistan that the United States has trust in the leaders of the country and uses this visit to show its support for the new government,” said Afghan political analyst Jawed Khoistani. “A long-term American presence in Afghanistan is essential.”
Ghani’s week-long trip, which starts Sunday, comes as the Afghan army is waging its first-ever solo offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province, their southern heartland, seeking a decisive victory ahead of the spring fighting season as evidence it can carry the battle without U.S. and NATO combat troops that withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
Ghani, who was personally involved in planning the Helmand operation, launched in February, will ask the U.S. for enhanced backup in the offensive, including air support, several officials close to the Afghan president said.
There are 13,000 foreign soldiers still in Afghanistan, about 9,800 American troops and 3,000 from NATO — down from a peak of 140,000 in 2009-2010. Those still here are involved in training and supporting Afghan security forces, with battlefield backup only when necessary. Also, half of the U.S. troops are engaged in counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
U.S. officials have said the Obama administration is set to abandon plans to draw down to 5,500 troops by year’s end, bowing to military leaders’ requests. And while no final decision on numbers has been made, the U.S is expected to allow many of the American troops to remain well into 2016.
However, Ghani has already signaled in talks ahead of the visit that he wants the U.S. to maintain 10,000 troops in Afghanistan throughout the next decade, according to a European military official.
Even more important is the presence of U.S. and NATO bases, which are to be dismantled in mid-2016, according to current plans — an undertaking that would take assets away from the fight.
Keeping the bases going would reaffirm Afghanistan’s strategic importance to the United States. And though Ghani is likely to get a U.S. commitment for funding, training and support for the Afghan military beyond 2016, his request to keep the bases open beyond that timeframe is still on the table, the European official said.
U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan agree with Ghani that the U.S. bases in Kabul, the southern city of Kandahar, the former capital for the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime, and the eastern city of Jalalabad should remain open “as long as possible,” the European official said. Germany was considering extending the life of its base in northern Mazar-i-Sharif, but the Italian base in the eastern city of Herat is not expected to remain.
In Washington, Ghani is also likely to raise the subject of a new, home-grown threat from an Islamic State affiliate. Though the offshoot’s strength and reach in Afghanistan remain unclear so far, those who have swapped the white Taliban flag for the black flag of the Islamic State group, which is fighting in Iraq and Syria, are believed to have links to the group’s leadership in the Middle East.
Both Ghani and his chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who will accompany the president on his U.S. visit along with around 65 Afghan officials, have referred to the Islamic State group in recent speeches. U.S. Gen. John Campbell, commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan who speaks regularly with Ghani, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month that the rise of the group in Afghanistan was being taken “very, very seriously.”
“The Daesh character is that it is like a maneater,” Ghani said in Kabul on Saturday, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. “It swallows its competitors. What it did to the Syrian National Army is one example.”
“If we do not recognize the phenomenon of terrorism, we cannot defeat it,” he said.
The U.S. military was behind a February drone strike that killed Abdul Raouf Khadim, a Taliban commander who switched allegiance to the Islamic State group and set up an IS recruiting network in southern Afghanistan. And Khadim’s nephew and successor, Hafiz Wahidi, was killed with nine of his men in an Afghan military operation in Helmand on March 16, according to the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
Analysts say the extreme violence advocated by the Islamic State group is unlikely to appeal to most Afghans or even would-be militants, though a war-won share of the estimated $3 billion a year from Afghanistan’s poppy crop — a third of which goes to Taliban coffers — could be appealing.
Parallel to his military struggle, Ghani is also trying to negotiate an end to the 13-year war with the Taliban and open a preliminary dialogue with those among the group’s leadership willing to come to the negotiating table — as a prelude to formal peace talks, possibly within two years.
Multiple efforts to start a peace process have failed in the past. For this, Ghani also needs U.S. backing, to pressure the government in neighboring Pakistan, where many of the Taliban leaders are based, to bring the militants into the talks.
In the U.S., Ghani will also meet with donors, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in an effort to secure funds to alleviate Afghanistan’s financial crisis and help his reform plans.
Exactly what he may come home with remains to be seen.
“Ghani is going with high expectations,” said one of the officials close to the Afghan president.