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Worldview: U.S. gains friend in Ghani, but does not return favor

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's trip to Washington last week was so triumphant one could almost imagine how his troubled country might morph into a future success story.

President Obama with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in the Oval Office. JACQUELYN MARTIN / AP
President Obama with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in the Oval Office. JACQUELYN MARTIN / APRead more

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's trip to Washington last week was so triumphant one could almost imagine how his troubled country might morph into a future success story.

At a joint session of Congress and a glittering White House dinner, the brilliant World Bank technocrat and Columbia University grad turned politician pledged a new era in Afghan-U.S. relations. The slight but elegant Ghani presented himself as the antidote to prickly former President Hamid Karzai, under whom corruption soared and U.S.-Afghan relations soured.

Ghani profusely thanked Americans for their sacrifices in lives and cash, which have helped his country survive Taliban attacks and rebuild. He stressed that Afghanistan must now shoulder the main burden of securing its future. Standing on a podium beside Ghani, President Obama intoned: "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."

So is it really possible - after all the bipartisan support Ghani received - that Obama could blow this opportunity for a happy ending in Afghanistan? The answer, unbelievably, is yes.

The White House seems more focused on putting the failed Afghan war behind it than on helping Ghani stabilize the country. True, Obama agreed to delay withdrawal of the last 10,000 U.S. troops, who are training and assisting Afghan forces. Rather than shrinking by half, the force will remain through this year.

But Obama insisted that the timeline for a complete withdrawal "remains the end of 2016." Obviously, he wants to say he ended the war by the time he leaves office. Yet the deadline threatens to pull the rug out from under Ghani before he can show results.

Afghan forces are (barely) holding the Taliban to a stalemate following the withdrawal of 100,000 U.S. troops. But they will still need U.S. help with air, intelligence, and logistics support, as well as financing, after 2016. And the continued presence of those 10,000 U.S. advisers has symbolic value that transcends its military importance. It signals to the world that the United States is still committed to a stable Afghanistan. Conversely, a troop exit would tell the Taliban - or ISIS - that America has lost interest in the country and there is a vacuum to be filled.

We saw something similar in Iraq when the administration failed to leave a 10,000-troop residual force beyond 2011 and stopped paying attention. ISIS and Iran filled the vacuum.

This bitter lesson should have changed Obama's thinking on Afghanistan, but it hasn't - yet.

In Afghanistan, the 2016 deadline has already decreased Taliban interest in negotiating a peace deal with Ghani. Why talk now when they can wait until the last American troops exit?

As important, the deadline undercuts U.S. leverage to help Ghani persuade his neighbors - including Pakistan, Iran, India, and China - to work together for a stable Afghanistan. At the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he was welcomed by dozens of diplomats, academics, and U.S. officials who know him, Ghani explained why regional diplomacy is key.

"The problem fundamentally is not about peace with the Taliban, but about peace with Pakistan," he said, referring to the fact that the neighboring country has provided sanctuaries to the Taliban for decades. In the past, Pakistan sought to control Afghanistan via the Taliban as a hedge against its archenemy, India.

But today, said Ghani, with networks of terrorists spreading in South and Central Asia and threatening Pakistan too, "the two states must reach an acceptance of each other to prevent the region from sinking into chaos." With help from Islamabad, he believes some of the Afghan Taliban could be persuaded to give up arms and enter the political system.

Ghani's No. 2, Abdullah Abdullah, expanded on that during a breakfast at the Afghan Embassy. "We have seen a change in tone in Pakistan," he said, "and there is a lot of interaction between our civil and military leadership." The fact that Pakistan's leadership is being hit by terrorist attacks, he said, has impelled them to attack Pakistani Taliban groups. The Afghan government has "not seen evidence" yet that Pakistan has cut its support for the Afghan Taliban, but "there is a much more positive environment there," which Afghans hope to build on.

Meantime, said Ghani, a "new ecology of terror" in which terrorist networks spread rapidly across borders may force Afghanistan's neighbors to cooperate in fighting jihadis. They must join together, he believes, to combat extremism and help stabilize Afghanistan, which occupies critical geography and could become a nexus for gas and oil pipelines and energy grids.

The saddest aspect of Obama's ambivalence is its timing. Ghani's election presents new opportunities to stabilize Afghanistan and coincides with geopolitical shifts that could rally the region to that cause. American diplomacy could play a critical role. "The United States remains an indispensable interlocutor," said Ghani.

But only if Obama overcomes his eagerness to turn his back on Afghanistan by the end of 2016.