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New start on U.S.-Afghan ties

With a new president set to visit Washington, hopes are high for better cooperation between the two nations.

KABUL, Afghanistan - As the Afghan president heads to the United States on his first trip to Washington as head of state, the visit offers a chance for both sides to start afresh on troubled U.S.-Afghan relations.

Ashraf Ghani faces a daunting task - the visit could set the tone for years to come. More pressingly, he needs firm commitment of U.S. military support in his fight against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including an Islamic State affiliate, which he and U.S. military leaders fear is finding a foothold in Afghanistan.

Ghani's relationship with Washington stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, whose antagonism toward the U.S. culminated in a refusal to sign security agreements with Washington and NATO before leaving office. Ghani signed the pacts within days of becoming president in September, and has since enjoyed a close relationship with U.S. diplomats and military leaders.

"It's important for Afghanistan that the United States has trust in the leaders of the country and uses this visit to show its support for the new government," said Afghan political analyst Jawed Khoistani. "A long-term American presence in Afghanistan is essential."

Ghani's weeklong trip, which starts Sunday, comes as the Afghan army is waging its first solo offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province, seeking a decisive victory ahead of the spring fighting season as evidence it can carry the battle without U.S. and NATO combat troops, which withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

Ghani, who was involved in planning the Helmand operation, will ask the U.S. for enhanced backup, including air support, several officials close to him told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

There are 13,000 foreign soldiers still in Afghanistan, about 9,800 American troops and 3,000 from NATO, down from a peak of 140,000 in 2009-10. They are involved in training and supporting Afghan security forces, with battlefield backup only when necessary.

U.S. officials have said the Obama administration is set to abandon plans to draw down to 5,500 troops by year's end, bowing to military leaders' requests.

In Washington, Ghani is also likely to raise the subject of a new, home-grown threat from an Islamic State affiliate. Though the offshoot's strength and reach in Afghanistan remain unclear, its adherents are believed to have links to the group's leadership in the Middle East.