Afghan president launches charm offensive to win over Washington

When Ashraf Ghani arrives in the US on Sunday, on his first visit as Afghan president, he will be on an all-out charm offensive to convince his country’s most vital ally to retain Afghanistan as a high priority.

With US enthusiasm for prolonging its venture in Afghanistan at a low, many Afghans are looking to Ghani to stem the flow of international support away from their war-ravaged country.

Afghanistan faces a withdrawal of international troops, a stagnant economy and the daunting task of negotiating peace with the Taliban. All three topics will be at the core of Ghani’s discussions with US officials and congressmen.

“Political support from the US is important because it will send a message to the armed opposition and to countries in the region,” said Shahmahmood Miakhel, Afghanistan country director for the United States Institute of Peace

The trip also caps Ghani’s first six months in office, during which he has produced few tangible results at home but has markedly improved relations with Afghanistan’s international backers.

Swiftly after taking office, Ghani signed a much-delayed security agreement and loosened restrictions on US night-raids and air strikes.

With daily phone calls and several weekly meetings, the president is in more regular contact with Gen John Campbell, the commander of US troops in Afghanistan, than with his chief executive and government partner, Abdullah Abdullah.

However, many years of friction between the US and former president Hamid Karzai have seeded a deep mistrust among members of Congress who will have to sign off on expenditures for Afghanistan, said Tamim Asey, a US-educated researcher in Kabul.

“Many congressmen are sceptical and don’t think Afghanistan belongs in US foreign policy,” he said. “Karzai sounded very ungrateful, and that damaged the goodwill within the United States.”

Ghani’s visit may also bring to the surface the first points of serious tension between him and the US government.

With the Afghan forces showing the strain under assaults from a revived insurgency, Ghani has appealed for a slower withdrawal of international troops. Gen Campbell has done the same, warning that a hasty pullout might squander some of the security improvements of the past 13 years.

“We’re not asking for charity,” Ghani told a group of international reporters on Saturday, prior to his departure for Washington. “But we will be seeking a meaningful partnership where common interests and common approaches to use of resources, and to sustainability of the efforts that are undertaken, are going to be the focus of our attention.”

Under current arrangements, US troop numbers will be cut in half, to roughly 5,500, before the end of 2015, and pulled out altogether next year. The US has already transferred control of about 400 Nato bases, and its troops are mainly delegated to training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces.

Barack Obama is expected to announce that the US will keep many of the roughly 10,000 troops in the country well into 2016, longer than planned.

There are, however, no signs that the final deadline for troop drawdown, at the end of next year, will be changed. A crucial task for Ghani, therefore, will be to convince American lawmakers to at least maintain economic assistance for Afghanistan’s armed forces.

After the US has spent more than $100bn on reconstructing Afghanistan since 2001, the country is still unable to fund its own army and police, largely thanks to endemic corruption. According to Ghani, his government is able to pay only $750,000 of the more than $4bn needed every year to sustain the 350,000-strong security force.

Ghani has promised fiscal efficiency and transparency. During his week in the US, he will meet with various officials, including the secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew, and the United Nations Development Programme, to convince them he is up for that task.

A final, central issue of the meetings will be paving the ground for negotiations with the Taliban. Ghani has stressed that peace talks must happen directly between his government and the insurgents, without interference from third parties.

“But what the US can do is to use their strong diplomatic muscle, for example by putting more pressure on Pakistan,” said Asey, referring to Pakistan’s alleged support and sheltering of Taliban fighters.

Judging from current relations, Ghani may be able to change the tone in Afghanistan’s relations with the US for years to come. At the press briefing on Saturday, the president sounded a note of gratitude.

“We own the problem and we are not shifting the problem to the shoulders of our partners,” he said. “The bottom line is that the government of Afghanistan is responsible for the security of Afghanistan.”

Source : theguardian[dot]com
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