WASHINGTON: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addresses the US Congress Wednesday and is expected to thank his American allies and turn the page from predecessor Hamid Karzai, ushering revitalized cooperation between his war-torn nation and Washington.
Ghani arrived last weekend for his first US visit since taking power last year. He is accompanied by chief executive Abdullah Abdullah on a visit that has been billed as a new chapter in ties between the two countries.
On Tuesday, Ghani met with President Barack Obama at the White House, where the two leaders announced the Pentagon will slow its drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan and keep the current level of 9,800 troops there until the end of 2015.
The reversal of US plans to withdraw some 5,000 troops this year was a concession to the country’s new reform-minded leader.
The Afghan president addresses a joint meeting of Congress at 11:00 am (1500 GMT), a rare and prestigious honor for a foreign leader and one usually reserved for close allies.
Karzai addressed Congress in 2004, during the early years of the war in Afghanistan.
But ties with Karzai quickly soured. He refused to sign a bilateral security agreement, which was finally signed last September after the inauguration of his successor.
Ghani is expected to pay further tribute to the sacrifice endured by Americans during the Afghan war, the longest in US history, in which more than 2,300 US personnel were killed and tens of thousands injured.
Congress controls the purse strings regarding US military operations in Afghanistan, and Ghani’s visit comes just as US lawmakers are hammering out an American budget for fiscal year 2016 which includes tens of billions of dollars in overseas contingency operations.
Karzai’s presidency was marked by deep mutual distrust between Kabul and Washington, and by the end of his term the Afghan leader was seen as increasingly paranoid, unreliable and tolerant of corruption.
Since taking office, Ghani has embraced calls to tackle corruption and for Afghan forces to lead the fight against Taliban militants.
And in a strikingly different tone from his predecessor, he thanked US troops for their sacrifice in the long conflict that followed the toppling of the Taliban government in 2001.
“You stood shoulder to shoulder with us and I’d like to say thank you,” Ghani said Tuesday, hours after undertaking a deeply symbolic visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
US lawmakers will be watching Ghani’s speech closely for signs of improved cooperation and commitment to reforms in his impoverished country.
The trip “comes at a pivotal time for his country and its relationship with the United States,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker said in a statement.
“We have a vested interest in the ability of Afghans to secure and stabilize their country after the investments of the American people and the extraordinary sacrifices of our service members.”