Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What Is Driving a Remarkable Shift in US-Afghan Relations?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What Is Driving a Remarkable Shift in US-Afghan Relations?

Article excerpt

When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opened his visit to Washington this week by thanking American troops and taxpayers for their years of sacrifice in support of his country, it marked a remarkable shift in the US-Afghan relationship.

That shift is more than just a matter of tone.

There is no comparing the words of Mr. Ghani with the confrontational bearing and suspicious nature of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai was convinced of official US maneuverings against him at every turn, and he railed against what he considered to be American disregard for Afghan sovereignty and the lives of Afghan civilians.

But underpinning the rhetorical shift is a deeper recognition of a new reality in relations between the two countries - one in which Afghanistan is seeking to maintain the financial and military support of a US partner who, after nearly 14 years of war, is increasingly ready to move on.

"No longer is the $17 billion economy trying to wag the tail of the $17 trillion superpower," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who specializes in defense and foreign policy issues.

Unlike Karzai, who knew Afghanistan was at the top of the US national security agenda in the initial years of the Obama White House, "Ghani is well aware that abandonment is an option for the US," Mr. O'Hanlon says. "He's here with a more businesslike manner to make the case for why that's a bad option."

There are signs that Ghani, backed by some powerful voices within the administration including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, has won his case - at least to some degree. On Tuesday, President Obama announced that 9,800 US troops would remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2015.

That marks a revision from Mr. Obama's original timetable, which would have halved the 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan by the end of this year and gradually removed the remaining 5,000 by the end of his term in 2017.

As part of the delayed drawdown, US bases in Kandahar in the restive south and in Jalalabad, in the east near Pakistan, are expected to remain open. Obama unveiled the revision today when Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the "chief executive" with whom Ghani is sharing powers, met at the White House.

Obama's revised drawdown plans take account of both Afghan and US officials' assessments that the US- and NATO-trained Afghan military and police are not yet ready to stand alone against the Taliban insurgency. Pentagon officials also say this is not the moment for the US to lose the eyes and boots on the ground offered by the two bases that had been slated to close.

Trends in Afghanistan over the last year as Afghan security forces have taken over the fight from US and NATO forces - a spike in Afghan military casualties that US defense officials say is not sustainable, a stubbornly high desertion rate among Afghan soldiers, and an uptick in Afghan civilian deaths - have presented Obama with a dilemma. …

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