A New Day in US-Afghan Relations, But for How Long?

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks while Secretary of State John Kerry listens during a dinner reception at the State Department, on March 24, 2015.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks while Secretary of State John Kerry listens during a dinner reception at the State Department, on March 24, 2015.

A dazzling goodwill tour by Afghanistan’s president wins a longer U.S. presence, for now.

This was a week to remember for the Afghan hands, so long out of the spotlight as America’s longest war wore on. From the White House to a joint session of Congress to a glittering (for Washington) State Department dinner for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Washington was filled with the images of a new day and a new set of leaders at the helm in Afghanistan.

“With a new government in Afghanistan and with the end of our combat mission, this visit is an opportunity to begin a new chapter between our two nations,” President Barack Obama said from the podium at a White House press conference with President Ghani. He went on to outline all the new arenas for cooperation in the years ahead between the U.S. and Afghanistan.

And at the State Department, Secretary of State John Kerry looked like a man among old friends, praising the Afghan leaders and promising them that they mattered to the United States.

“You will find that not only is Afghan unity important to the United States, but our policy towards Afghanistan has been a source of unity within the United States,” Kerry said. “Everything we have done in the areas of security, technical advice, and human development has been accomplished with the strong bipartisan backing of the House and Senate and the generous support of the American people, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard any leader come here and thank the American taxpayer the way you did today, Mr. President. Thank you.”

The Afghan leaders did indeed offer a stream of thanks all around town for America’s sacrifices and praise for America’s efforts in helping to assist Afghanistan in the development of its security forces and the nation. And they heartily welcomed the announcement that U.S. troops now in Afghanistan would remain there through 2015.

 “Thank you on behalf of a grateful nation to people in this building and the larger U.S. community who have sacrificed continuously since September 11th to bring us freedom and hope,” Ghani said during a visit to the Pentagon on Monday. “You built schools, you built dams, you built roads.”

(RelatedWar? What War? Afghan President Draws Far Less Interest From Lawmakers Than Netanyahu Did)

It was all part of a smoothly choreographed visit designed to provide a decidedly stark contrast to the administration of President Hamid Karzai, in which fractured relations and constant bilateral tensions had become the old normal. This is a new day and a new chapter in Afghan history, the visit made clear at every stop. For all the diplomatic, military and civil society leaders who believed in Afghanistan throughout the past decade, it was vindication that their hope was neither fruitless nor entirely in vain.

“The symbolism was extremely important — it was extremely important to the Afghans and it is extremely important to the stability of the Abdullah-Ghani partnership,” said former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann. “The Afghans were really looking to defer and delay the speed of our military pullout — that was not symbolic, that was substance. They got half of what they would have liked, they got the immediate piece.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. is still planning to leave Afghanistan and bring to a close to its longest war, as the president noted in the first question of the press conference to a reporter from Military Times.

“I think it’s important, Leo, to remember the timeline for a withdrawal down to an embassy-centered presence, a normalization of our presence in Afghanistan remains the end of 2016,” Obama said. “So that hasn’t changed. Our transition out of a combat role has not changed.” And by the end of the week, it was clear that while the Afghan leaders created an incredibly effective goodwill tour, much of America had already moved on.

During President Ghani’s address to the joint session of Congress, CNN covered the plane crash in Europe, not the Afghan president’s push to keep his nation a priority of U.S. foreign policy.

The fight against ISIS has now captured foreign policy and security leaders’ attention, and seized their focus. And yet, as the recent House Armed Services Committee hearing made clear, that battle and the war in Afghanistan are not entirely separate conversations.

“The [Afghan] senior leadership have told me on several occasions that they will not let what happened in Iraq happen in Afghanistan, they are very determined about that,” Gen. John Campbell told the House committee. “The question has been raised in many different instances as they have talked to the leadership. The president wants people to understand that the environment in Afghanistan continues to evolve. It is a dynamic environment and he doesn’t want his forces to become complacent.”

So at the end of the week, while the symbolism ruled this visit, the substance did indeed sit just behind it. And so did the reality that try as some might want to turn a new page and truly end America’s longest war, on-the-ground realities are conspiring to intervene and stop that from happening. Americans will remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2015 at their current levels. And 2016 remains some time away.

Or, as Neumann put it:

“Saying ‘we are ending the war’ is not a statement of fact but it is something the president deeply wants to have be true,” he said. The president “has been pulled between a vision he would like to make true of ending our participation in this war, getting on with domestic business, and realities that have made it hard to impossible to do that in a responsible way.”

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