Afghanistan’s new president wants U.S. troops — and their leaders — to know how much he appreciates them.
As Ashraf Ghani pushes President Barack Obama to keep more American troops in Afghanistan longer, the Afghan president is going out of his way to do something his predecessor could never do: thank the troops.
As soon as Ghani arrived in office late last year, he embarked on a campaign to ensure that top U.S. officials, including Obama, knew just how grateful his country was for the sacrifices of the 850,000-plus American troops who have served there since 2001. He continued his efforts on Monday, when he stopped by the Pentagon on his first official visit to Washington.
Ghani said he wanted to “pay tribute” to the 2,215 Americans who had “paid the ultimate sacrifice” and to the 20,000-plus U.S. troops wounded in action.
“But also,” he continued, “to more than hundreds of thousands with double duties. Close to a million American servicemen and -women have gotten to know my country,” he said. “You have been in the most remotest valleys, and the highest peaks, and the parched deserts, and beautiful valleys, but also in most demanding situations,” Ghani told more than 200 U.S. Afghanistan war veterans, handpicked from across the Pentagon to attend the event. “Each one of you has left a legacy, but I also understand that Afghanistan has marked you… thank you.”
Ghani has paid similar tribute to American troops in numerous other public events, including one in Kabul in December in which he stood beside then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and went so far to note American troops’ sacrifices that it surprised even U.S. defense officials on the trip.
Ghani’s stance on the service of American troops and that of other coalition forces is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who often spoke ill of troops and the United States, particularly after incidents in which there were civilian casualties. Karzai frequently took the opportunity to lambast U.S. policy and the troops who executed it, helping to sour relations between the two countries.
But Ghani, who has signaled since December that he’d like U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan longer than currently planned, has taken a decidedly different tack. His praise for troops has kept American officials all the more attentive.
“You built schools, you built dams, you build roads, and while the physical infrastructure is great and it’s changed lives, it is the attitude that you brought with it,” Ghani said at the Pentagon Monday. “An attitude of caring, and attitude of discipline and sacrifice, and the Afghan people, but particularly the Afghan security forces honor that attitude.”
Over the next few days, Ghani means to settle details of U.S. security assistance and the number of American troops who will remain there. Under a plan outlined by Obama last year, the American force will shrink from about 10,000 troops today to fewer than 6,000 over the next nine months. By the end of 2016, only a handful of troops would remain in Afghanistan: the contingent hosted by the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
Many experts and military officials think the plan needs to have more flexibility to give commanders a better chance to support Afghan forces as they take the fight to the Taliban and, to a lesser extent, any militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State.
At a press briefing at Camp David, Md., on Monday afternoon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said those decisions were still under consideration. Still, officials have said they expect the White House to agree this week to a plan under which most of the 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now would stay through next year. Administration officials had said on Friday that the discussion now is only about the next two years, and not about leaving a larger force in Afghanistan after 2016.
That has triggered familiar arguments about the White House’s tendency to make decisions based on a calendar, not “conditions on the ground.”
Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republicans of Arizona and South Carolina respectively, said Monday they were glad to see Obama considering a slower drawdown but still had concerns that the White House was so far sticking to its plan to remove most forces by 2017.
“We are deeply concerned by reports that the Administration is holding to an arbitrary calendar date for its significant draw down plan for next year, rather than one based upon conditions on the ground,” the two wrote. “Such a course would put at immediate risk all gains achieved over thirteen years of war in Afghanistan.”
Still, Ghani has undeniably changed the White House’s calculus.
Andrew Wilder, the vice-president of South and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Friday he believes more troops in Afghanistan would be effective insurance against instability and would help bolster Afghan forces.
Wilder, who has lived and worked in and out of the region for years, said he used to think the U.S. should provide less assistance to Afghanistan. If Karzai had been re-elected, Wilder said he would have recommended that the U.S. leave Afghanistan. But now, with Ghani and Afghanistan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah in office, Wilder said, he’s worried the U.S. is leaving the country too quickly.
Leaving more troops there would be wise, he told reporters Friday.
“I think it’s actually a positive development because it helps strengthen the military and the Afghan National Security Forces during the upcoming fighting season,” Wilder said.
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