Afghan President`s visit brings US hopes for a new start

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani holds his first White House summit with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, capping a four-day visit that the United States hopes will herald a less fraught chapter in relations.

Washinton: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani holds his first White House summit with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, capping a four-day visit that the United States hopes will herald a less fraught chapter in relations.

For most of the past 14 years, while US blood has spilled in the craggy mountain passes of Helmand and Wardak, Washington has been fighting a parallel battle with Afghanistan`s leaders.

Obama and long-serving president Hamid Karzai were nominally allies, but they rarely seemed at ease in public. In private, US officials raged that Karzai was feckless, paranoid, tolerant of corruption and worse.

There was relief then, when Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah took office in 2014 despite tricky elections and seemingly interminable power sharing negotiations.

The White House has been blunt about what Ghani`s arrival has meant.

"This is a different relationship than we had under President Karzai," said Jeff Eggers, Obama`s top advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"It`s clearly more cooperative and better."

Better because Ghani appears willing to implement security and economic reforms that put Afghanistan on a path to something like self-reliance, one that doesn`t involve endless US funding and indefinite large-scale US troop deployments.

That sits well with Obama, who has promised to have almost all troops out of Afghanistan by 2017, when he leaves office.

Ghani, a 15-year World Bank veteran who arrived back to the United States on Sunday, has made all the right noises about "common interests" and Afghans taking the lead in fighting.

In an interview ahead of his White House meeting he noted the deaths of more than 2,200 Americans in Afghanistan and paid tribute to their service.

"They`ve gotten to know our valleys, our deserts, our mountains. They have stood shoulder to shoulder with us," he told CNN.

On Monday, Ghani will take a large Afghan delegation to the presidential retreat of Camp David.

There he will hold talks on security, the economy and Taliban reconciliation with the US secretaries of state, defense and treasury, along with military and intelligence staff.

On Tuesday, before his meeting with Obama, Ghani will visit Arlington National Cemetery where many of the troops killed in Afghanistan lie.But amid the harmonious rhetoric, there are major points of contention between Ghani and Obama.

Most notably, the Afghan President wants Obama to reconsider the pace of his drawdown.

Last year saw one of the most bloody fighting seasons on record.

As the 2015 fighting season begins, reconciliation talks with the Taliban are proving difficult, despite Ghani`s efforts to get regional powers like Pakistan on board.

The Taliban continues to impose tough conditions, including the absence of any foreign troops on Afghan soil, as a precondition to negotiations.

There is also mounting concern about the influence of the Islamic State.

The Middle East-based group has not formally confirmed it is operating out of Afghanistan, though Pakistani and Afghan commanders have pledged their allegiance in recent months.

All the while, Afghanistan`s government is unable to collect enough revenue, making donors essential, according to the IMF, whose own representative in Kabul was killed in January 2014.

All this has put Obama`s goal of reducing troop numbers in doubt.

The United States was due to reduce its 10,000 troops to 5,500 by December, but that number is expected to be reassessed.

The White House has recently talked about "flexibility" about the "the precise pace of the troop drawdown and the precise sequence of base closures in Afghanistan."

But the goal of having only a limited number of troops on counter-terror operations and to protect the US embassy by 2017 has not changed.

An announcement on the pace of the drawdown may come when Obama holds a joint press conference with Ghani on Tuesday after their meeting.

During that head-to-head the Afghan president is also likely to seek assurances on fresh US monetary commitments.

A senior Afghan official who requested anonymity told AFP: "The meetings in the US will focus on another key point: the financial support to Afghanistan, which has been secured until 2017, but needs to be confirmed for the following five years.

"This support will be crucial, because it will take some years for our economy to stand on its feet alone, organize a proper tax collection," he continued.

US officials say specific commitments are not likely.

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