By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, March 21, 2015 – President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other U.S. leaders will discuss a range of issues this upcoming week with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who arrives Sunday on his first official visit to the United States, senior administration officials said Friday.
Among the discussion topics for Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah will be flexibility on troop drawdown in Afghanistan, concerns about the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant gaining a foothold there, and working toward stability in the region.
Jeff Eggers, National Security Council senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Dan Feldman, State Department special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, held a media call to preview the visit.
Ghani replaced Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president in September, and Feldman said Ghani and Abdullah “have expressed consistently and unequivocally their desire to ensure that our bilateral relationship is … strengthened and that we continue to hone and design it to produce the most productive partnership in the years ahead.”
Ghani and Carter at the Pentagon
Ghani, Abdullah and their delegation will spend three to four days in Washington and a day in New York. On Monday, Carter will host them at the Pentagon, where there will be an honor cordon and a meeting chaired by Carter on strategic security issues, Feldman said.
Afterward, the Afghan leaders will travel to Camp David to meet with members of the national security team and key principals, he added, including Carter, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and members of the National Security Council staff and the intelligence community.
On Tuesday the Afghan leaders will meet with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House. Obama and Ghani will discuss the bilateral relationship, and on Wednesday, Ghani will address a joint session of Congress. On Thursday morning, Ghani and Abdullah will head to New York for United Nations meetings, including a visit with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Feldman said.
Among the issues Ghani seeks to resolve is his request of Obama to consider flexibility on the planned drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, Eggers said. In a decision reached last May between the United States and Afghanistan, Eggers said 9,800 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan for the Resolute Support mission until the end of 2015.
Then, for the bulk of the mission in 2016, U.S. troop levels would fall to 5,500, Eggers added. Afterward, the mission would further consolidate to a security cooperation office focused mainly on administering what Eggers called “the very significant and robust security assistance program that we imagine will persist beyond 2016.”
He said the first part of Ghani’s request for flexibility looks to extend the 9,800-troop level beyond the end of this year.
Afghan Threat Assessment
“The discussions that are being held now are taking a look at how much flexibility, how much adjustment … is required, and frankly it’s difficult for us to say right now until we have a sense of the president’s decision on where that will be,” Eggers added.
If their stay is extended, the troops would support a new national security strategy that Ghani has been working on with Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar, Eggers said, based on their threat assessment and their perceived need to structure their force going into the 2015 fighting season.
One of the threats is the emergence of ISIL in the Middle East, and, he added, “some concern raised with the spread of the Islamic State and its potential emergence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
To respond to Ghani’s request for flexibility, Eggers said, Campbell developed a recommendations to enhance the Afghan National Security Forces train, advise and assist mission, maintain counterterrorism capabilities, and manage the drawdown to prioritize force protection for U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.
Outlining Key Interests
“These recommendations were brought to Washington some number of weeks ago and they’ve been under discussion here,” Eggers added, “to include a meeting [Obama] had with his national security team this week in preparation for Ghani’s arrival.”
Feldman said the United States is looking to Ghani and Abdullah to outline key interests beyond the request for flexibility.
These include issues, he said, “of dealing with their economic transition, on how they can best try to utilize some technical assistance in a variety of areas, [and] on how we will continue to work with the international community to help ensure that a high degree of focus stays on Afghanistan.”
Another issue for discussion this week will be how the Afghan government will reconcile with the Taliban, Feldman added.
Window of Opportunity
Feldman said Ghani and Abdullah have courageously opened a window of opportunity to try to incentivize direct talks with the Taliban. Though there is nothing to announce right now, he added, “they have taken some important steps to demonstrate the seriousness of their government to … providing a long-term, sustainable resolution to this conflict.”
He said the United States stands by the same red lines for reconciliation outcomes “that we’ve had for the last five years in terms of supporting a process that ultimately results in the Taliban renouncing violence and breaking from al Qaida and embracing the Afghan constitution, including its rights for women and minorities.”
Eggers said the potential for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban is being pursued regionally and also directly between Kabul and Islamabad in Pakistan.
Afghan Outreach to Pakistan
Feldman said the role Pakistan plays in Afghanistan is particularly important and that the bilateral relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has grown stronger over the past six months, due to outreach by Ghani and Abdullah.
This included a visit by Ghani to Islamabad and numerous visits to Kabul by Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army Gen. Raheel Sharif, Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, de facto Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz and others, he added.
“They’re seeking to knit their two countries together in a variety of channels,” Feldman said, including economic and trade, and cross-border military and counterterrorism issues.
Continuing the Conversation
Even after this week’s discussions, Eggers said the United States must continue the conversation with the Afghans about how the joint partnership will evolve over the years and how the United States will continue to support Afghanistan.
“But,” he said, “it will increasingly be financial and diplomatic in nature, as the troop level continues to go down. Our commitment to Afghan stability will remain strong but it will manifest increasingly through … other forms of financial and diplomatic support.”