President Obama, buoyed at last by the presence of an Afghan leader he can work with, is expected to adjust the schedule of American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan when he meets this week with President Ashraf Ghani.
And while the White House insists that no decisions have been made that could keep troops there after Obama leaves office in 2017, it is clear the White House believes its relationship with Afghanistan has changed after six years of tense and often hostile relations with his Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
Ghani will be accompanied at all stops by Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive officer of the Unity Government forged in September by the United States to bring the two longtime political rivals together after an inconclusive election left a critical vacuum in Kabul.
The visit by Ghani and Abdullah was called "unprecedented and unique" in its scope and ambition by Dan Feldman, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "They are seeing virtually everybody—all policy leaders across the executive branch, the legislative branch, and civil society," he told White House reporters Friday. Their goal, he said, is to "reset this bilateral narrative."
It is a narrative that badly needs resetting after the dysfunction of Karzai's final years in office. And Ghani clearly understands it will not be easy to persuade policymakers in Washington or average Americans weary of the nation's longest-ever war that Afghanistan remains worthy of such high-level—and costly—attention.
After arriving Sunday morning, Ghani and Abdullah will have a small, informal dinner with Secretary of State John Kerry, the White House said. On Monday, the visiting heads of state will start at the Pentagon before going to Camp David. There, the top security teams of both governments—including the American secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury—will conduct a strategic security review.
On Tuesday, they will have breakfast with Vice President Joe Biden and visit Arlington Cemetery before spending five hours at the White House, concluding with a joint press conference with Obama. Wednesday will be spent on Capitol Hill, most notably with an address to a joint meeting of Congress. Then on Thursday, the two Afghan leaders will go to New York for meetings at the United Nations and with editorial boards and think tanks.
The point of the visit is to demonstrate that theirs is a government the United States can work with. Ghani is well known in Washington and is part of the foreign policy establishment after spending years here as a World Bank official. Though this will be his first meeting with Obama, the U.S. president has already embraced him, in stark contrast to the open hostility that marked the final years of the Obama-Karzai relationship. Karzai had been particularly close to President George W. Bush, but even that relationship grew strained after a series of devastating U.S. attacks and raids that left Afghan civilians dead.
It worsened when Obama took office. Even though the new president had repeatedly called Afghanistan the "good war"—in contrast to the combat in Iraq "“ his lecturing on Afghan corruption nettled Karzai, who grew to believe there was nobody in Washington who understood him or his country and shouting soon marked many of his meetings, including at least one with Vice President Biden. Video conferences linking Washington and Kabul, once a regular feature for President Bush, soon were halted, and Obama would go months without talking to Karzai, who also demanded an end to night raids by U.S. forces and refused to sign an agreement to let American troops remain in country after the main force was removed.
Enter the unity government. The first sign of reconciliation was a resumption of those video conferences. Obama has held three of these with Ghani and Abdullah—Oct. 22, Dec. 9, and March 12. After each, the White House issued positive read-outs in great contrast to the blunt talk after each conversation between Obama and Karzai. Now, the statements praised Ghani for a "productive" start to his government, the "timely ratification" of agreements for future security, and troop deployments and "continuing close consultations."
"U.S.-Afghan relations are experiencing a sea-change from how they had been during the era of Hamid Karzai," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "Ghani has made a number of decisions that have been very well received in Washington. So I think that the relationship is in very good shape."
That makes possible some flexibility on Obama's part on his previous announcements of the pace of American troop withdrawals. Earlier, the president announced that only about 5,500 American forces would be left there by next year. But that number is expected to almost double to 10,000 as a result of Ghani's insistence that more are needed to fight off a still-robust Taliban threat.
Jeff Eggers, special assistant to the president for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters that Army General John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has made recommendations to the president on future troop levels. "We are still working through that," he said. He added that Obama would like to give Ghani the flexibility he said he needs. "The president will have something to say" this week. "But no decisions have yet been made on that," he added.
Eggers stressed that most of the ongoing discussions have focused "on the near term" of troop levels in 2015 and 2016. Troop levels after 2016 will be discussed later.
Robert Hathaway, a former CIA staffer and now a fellow at the Wilson Center's Asia Program, said Obama also can expect Ghani to press him on more economic aid from Washington, as well as more backing for Kabul's plans to go forward with peace talks with the Taliban.
"The Obama administration believes that it should not be and cannot be a direct party to these talks but that it can play a useful and, indeed, perhaps even a crucial role in continuing to persuade and pressure the Pakistanis" to pressure the Taliban to negotiate, Hathaway said.