Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is about to embark on his first official visit to the U.S. as head of state. He will be hosted at the White House along with his former rival and now partner in the National Unity Government (NUG), Abdullah Abdullah. Both leaders inherit a bumpy legacy of U.S.-Afghan relations. Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai had a rocky relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama and his national security team. That deep distrust, together with Karzai’s very public outbursts at U.S. policies, has cost Afghanistan dearly in terms of both image and goodwill amongst the U.S. public and its policymakers. According to recent polls, Afghanistan no longer ranks among the top foreign policy priorities for the United States.
President Ghani and his team have a major task ahead of them reversing the damaged relationship between the two countries and rebuilding goodwill in the United States. Besides repairing the damaged relationship, the Afghan delegation should try to secure long-term economic assistance and security guarantees from the United States. Without them, Afghanistan will fast descend into chaos, with repercussions for the entire region. The cost of inaction will be far greater than a long-term commitment to peace and stability.
Specifically, Ghani and his delegation should try to accomplish the following five tasks.
1. Rebuild Afghanistan’s image and its relations with the U.S.
Karzai was the darling of the West during his first term in office. It was his sense of insecurity and some misguided tactics by the late Richard Holbrooke and his team in trying to unseat Karzai during the 2009 elections that cultivated deep resentment and distrust. With Karzai’s outbursts, bilateral relationships soured and the interest of the U.S. public in the Afghan war and economic assistance waned.
Ghani and his delegation must convince the American public and policymakers that Afghanistan is worth the fight and that the sacrifices the U.S. has made should not be for nothing. The national security interests of both countries are at stake.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan should bolster its diplomatic presence in Washington and New York with competent diplomats and interlocutors to handle this strategic relationship. The existing diplomatic presence is inept, incompetent, and highly politicized with little to show for the past few years. Afghanistan requires a more effective diplomatic team in both Washington and New York.
2. Secure long-term security guarantees and economic assistance.
Immediately after taking office Ghani signed the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), securing long-term financial support and technical assistance for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The devil, however, is in the details. Much needs to be mapped out, prioritized, programmed, implemented, and monitored.
By every estimate, the ANSF casualty rate has climbed dramatically, and together with a high attrition rate, the absence of surveillance and intelligence capabilities, the absence of air cover and support, this suggests the ANSF will have a tough job ahead in the upcoming spring and beyond. Indeed, the Taliban is expected to gain more territory and power this year.
Meanwhile, economic growth has plummeted and Afghanistan faces a fiscal crisis. Without long-term U.S. financial assistance, Afghanistan will not be able to sustain its bureaucracy and its security forces, and will be unable to deliver basic services. Until it can build a viable economy with sustainable revenue, Afghanistan will need U.S. financial and economic assistance or risk collapse.
3. Seek a stronger U.S. role in the peace process.
Several peace initiatives have been tried in Afghanistan, with the assistance of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. All have failed. Karzai has attributed this on a lack of political will and commitment from Pakistan and the United States, but Karzai’s administration deserves an equal share of the blame due to mismanagement, internal Afghan politics, and the double games played by all parties.
The time has come to move on from the policy of complicity and duplicity to a genuine peace process where reconcilable elements of the Taliban are brought to the negotiating table and given a role in Afghanistan’s democracy.
The U.S. has a critical role to play in bringing about a dignified peace in Afghanistan. For instance, it can through the UN Security Council assist in providing an environment for negotiations in third countries, pressure neighbors and specifically Pakistan to deliver on their peace promises through trilateral forums, and finally push the right military buttons to ensure that the right amount of military pressure is applied to the Taliban to encourage negotiation. Afghanistan and its allies have no choice but to prepare for both war and peace at the same time.
4. Ask for US muscle in regional diplomacy.
Given its vulnerabilities and the unfavorable balance of power in the region, the Afghan government struggles to be taken seriously by its neighbors. The U.S. can bring credibility and apply diplomatic pressure to other countries in South Asia, forcing them to take Afghan concerns and suggestions seriously.
The signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement followed by the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the United States and other European and NATO powers has brought a level of leverage and diplomatic weight to Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbors.
Ghani and his delegation should ask for a more active U.S. involvement in regional relations, especially where American diplomatic muscle and initiatives would be constructive.
5. Secure U.S. assistance in turning Afghanistan into a trade, transit and energy hub of South and Central Asia.
The U.S. can play a crucial role in underwriting and exerting the right political and economic pressure to advance some of the key regional transit, trade, and energy projects that cross Afghanistan, such as TAPI, CASA 1000, and the Lapis Corridor.
Afghanistan is located at the epicenter of Asian growth, with India, China, Pakistan, and Central Asian states have increasingly high level of trade volume and energy needs. The shortest and most economic route could be through Afghanistan. The U.S. could help Afghanistan realize this vision and build a sustainable economy.
This first U.S. visit by Ghani could shape the bilateral relations of both countries for years to come. His delegation can either take full of advantage of the potential of the visit, or allow it to be yet another courtesy call by a head of state.
Tamim Asey is a Fulbright alumni and a Columbia University Graduate. He is currently a Kabul-based researcher and writer.