Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited the United States for the first time this past week, spending five days in the nation’s capital. Ghani is in the midst of an effort to fundamentally alter the tone of the relationship between the Afghan government, the U.S., and the world. Ghani was received warmly by both U.S. President Barack Obama and members of both parties in Congress. The Afghan president’s trip was highlighted by his excellent address in a joint meeting of Congress on March 25th, where he heaped effusive praise on U.S. military personnel for their service and sacrifice in Afghanistan, noting the contributions of Americans have improved the quality of life for Afghans in extraordinary ways:

“In 2002, when the allies built their first clinics, the average lifespan of Afghans was 40 years. Today it’s over 60. Their children thank you. Today the rate of maternal mortality in our poor country was unacceptably high, but thanks to the immense effort you have made to build clinics and train nurses, an Afghan woman is no longer more likely to die because she gives birth to a child than if she had been somehow caught on the frontline of combat. Their husbands and their children thank you. Our partnership with America and its allies has brought our country hope where we—our country—had none. We would once again like to thank you for that wonderful gift from your people to ours: the gift of hope.” (Ashraf Ghani, Address to Joint Meeting of U.S. Congress, March 25)

In a previous article, I noted the positive tone that characterizes the way in which Ghani approaches communication with his U.S. and Pakistani partners. This tonal improvement has won him the cooperation of leaders in both countries, leaders that were often frustrated by the angry and demanding way in which Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, often engaged Washington and Islamabad. Ghani punctuated his address by conveying his personal investment in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and their impact on both U.S. military personnel and the people of Afghanistan. Ghani told of his own experience on September 11th: he was at his office in the World Bank in Washington D.C. while his daughters were living in New York City. In a powerful way, he underlined the personal nature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) mission in Afghanistan for himself and his family.

Ghani’s speech can be viewed on C-Span’s website.

Ghani opened his address with a respectful gesture of genuine appreciation for the sacrifices of U.S. military personnel throughout more than 13 years of war in Afghanistan:

“Above all else, I’d like to begin by thanking the people of the United States, whose generous support for my country has been of such immense value in advancing the cause of freedom. More than one million brave Americans have served in Afghanistan. They have come to know our snowcapped mountains, our valleys, our windswept deserts, our parched fields, our rivers and our plains of waving wheat. But more important than knowing our geography, they’ve come to defend and to know our people. In return, the people of Afghanistan recognize the bravery of your soldiers and the tremendous sacrifices that Americans have made to keep Afghanistan free. We owe a profound debt to the 2,350 service men and women killed, and the more than 20,000 who have been wounded in service to your country and ours. We owe a profound debt to the soldiers who’ve lost limbs, to the brave veterans, and to the families who tragically lost their loved ones to the enemies’ cowardly acts of terror.

We owe a profound debt to the many Americans who’ve come to repair wells and cure the sick, and we must acknowledge with appreciation that at the end of the day, it’s the ordinary Americans whose hard-earned taxes have over the years built the partnership that has led to our conversation today. I want to thank the American taxpayers and you, their representatives, for supporting us. The service of American men and women in our country has been made possible by the bipartisan support of the Congress of the United States. On behalf of our parliament and people, I salute and thank you.” (Ashraf Ghani, Address to Joint Meeting of U.S. Congress, March 25)

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Ghani is a fairly polished politician, replete with a self-effacing style and a grandfatherly appearance that make him appealing even to cynical American politicos and foreign leaders who had grown ambivalent or even hostile to the Kabul government under former President Karzai. He appeared optimistic, forward-looking, and humble, presenting a dramatic divergence from his predecessor, a man whose later years in office were characterized by a rigid opposition to U.S. policy and military strategy. For his part, Ghani has appeared open to a reevaluation of the necessity for American military involvement in Afghanistan.

Janine Davidson and Emerson Brooking, writing for CFR.org, heaped effusive praise on the Afghan president, noting his American education and the erudite way in which he addresses important issues related to the international community’s vital role in the continued development of Afghanistan:

Listening to his many speeches and interviews in meeting after meeting during this week’s trip to DC and New York, it is clear that these decades of study and practice have prepared him superbly for this moment. He exudes confidence and brilliance, referencing a dizzying array of facts, statistics, history, and theory, as he lays out his strategy for ‘fixing’ Afghanistan. (Janine Davidson and Emerson Brooking, CFR.org, March 26)

Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan

On the heels of his visit this week to Washington D.C., Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah told reporters gathered at a news conference that President Ghani would travel to India in April. Abdullah noted especially the financial contributions of the Indian government to Afghanistan (in excess of $2 billion) and alluded to Ghani’s plan to assuage any apprehension the New Delhi government might have in the wake of recent efforts by the Ghani government to improve its relationship with neighboring Pakistan. The animosity between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed adversaries, has great potential impact for the future development of Afghanistan.

All three countries find their futures are inextricably linked, with both India and Pakistan holding significant interest in the stability and economic development of Afghanistan. While India’s economic investment in Afghanistan’s development has been substantial, Pakistan remains an important variable in the security of its Afghan neighbor. Conversely, the continued growth of the Afghan economy and the stabilization of its security have great impact upon both India and Pakistan. Indian strategists would prefer a strong Afghanistan by which to ensure the denial of a haven to anti-Indian jihadist groups that often emanate from the Pakistani tribal areas, while Pakistan would benefit greatly from an economically viable Afghanistan that could act as a significant trade partner in South Asia.

The way ahead

Ghani and Obama reached an agreement to adjust the timeline of the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, leaving 9,800 service members in the country until the end of 2015. The original plan called for an American draw down to 5,500 service personnel. This is a significant shift in strategy, ensuring that the relationships cultivated through years of partnering with Afghan military forces will not be abandoned for purposes of political expediency.

Ghani’s trip was by every measure an astounding success. While it remains to be seen whether the Kabul government will find the machinations of power easier to navigate under the guidance of this new president, most of those in Washington D.C. that met with Ghani seem to be quite optimistic about the possibilities of real change in Afghanistan. In pitch-perfect tone, Ghani did not struggle to find the words to convey just how tight the bonds of Afghanistan and the United States will be in the ongoing fight against al-Qaeda:

“I’m not here to tell you a story about an overnight transformation of my country. You’re too wise for such stories. Twelve years of partnership provide evidence enough that the road ahead will be difficult. We live in a rough neighborhood. We are a very poor country. Self-reliance is our goal. We bear the scars of the fight against the Soviet Union. Scars that are in our minds as on the bodies of the Afghan farmers and American soldiers who have fought for freedom. But although we may be poor, we are very proud.

Afghanistan can and will be an enduring success. Your support, your understanding, and your commitment to our country will not have been in vain. Afghanistan will be the graveyard of al-Qaeda and their foreign terrorist associates. Never again will our country be hosts to terrorists. Never again will we give extremists the sanctuary to do their destructive plots. We will be the platform for the peaceful cooperation of our civilization. Together, our two countries will finish the job that began on that clear, terrible September morning almost 14 years ago.” (Ashraf Ghani, Address to Joint Meeting of U.S. Congress, March 25)

(Featured image courtesy of the Japan Times)