US, Afghan leaders discuss troops withdrawal

President Barack Obama held intensive White House talks Tuesday with his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking "flexibility" on the pace of US troop withdrawals from his war-torn nation.

AFP| Updated: Mar 25, 2015, 01:05 AM IST

Washington: President Barack Obama held intensive White House talks Tuesday with his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking "flexibility" on the pace of US troop withdrawals from his war-torn nation.

In the Oval Office for his first face-to-face meeting with Obama since becoming president, Ghani is expected to seize upon warmer relations to call for slower US troop reductions.

Obama has made it a priority to end America`s longest-ever war, which has been raging for more than 13 years and cost more than 2,200 American lives.

Under current White House plans, the number of US troops in Afghanistan would be halved to around 5,000 by the end of this year.

The remaining personnel would largely be confined to Kabul and Bagram airbase.

By early 2017, when Obama leaves office, only a handful of US troops would remain.

Ghani, who took charge six months ago after protracted power sharing negotiations, has embraced US calls for Afghanistan`s 350,000 security personnel to lead the fight against the Taliban.

But the 2014 April-October "fighting season" was one of the most bloody on record, exposing their poor command, insufficient training and a lack of crucial equipment.

In a stark reminder of the violence still wracking Afghanistan, gunmen killed 13 bus passengers in a province close to Kabul early on Tuesday.

With the 2015 fighting season now looming, Ghani wants some breathing space.

Obama is "actively considering that request," Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday, after a day of talks in the presidential woodland retreat of Camp David in Maryland.Ghani`s visit is designed to turn the page on years of distrust during the presidency of his mercurial predecessor Hamid Karzai.

Karzai repeatedly criticized US officials for what he called interference in his country, while aides in Washington privately raged that Karzai was feckless, paranoid and tolerant of corruption.

Before going to the White House, Ghani undertook a deeply symbolic visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

Earlier, he warmly thanked US troops for more than a decade of sacrifice since the 2001 toppling of a Taliban government by a US-led invasion.

"We do not now ask what the United States can do for us. We want to say what Afghanistan will do for itself and for the world," said Ghani, turning around a famous phrase of former US leader John F. Kennedy.

"And that means we are going to put our house in order," he told soldiers and senior US officials at a Pentagon ceremony.

Ghani diplomatically refused to be drawn when asked how many soldiers he would like to see remain.

"The question on numbers is a decision for the president of the United States, and that decision will solely be made by President Obama," Ghani said.

US officials have been quick to herald a new phase in relations.

Kerry the trip had brought "productive talks," and said the two countries shared "a commitment to security and peace and a desire to promote prosperity and social progress."

Defense Secretary Ash Carter also praised Ghani`s remarks which "underscored the extent to which the United States now has a revitalized partnership with Afghanistan`s new unity government."

Despite the pledges of US support, Ghani vowed his country would not "be a burden" to the international community, saying his unity government shared a "sense of urgency."