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Afghan President Makes First Official Visit To Washington


Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani comes to Washington this week looking for help. He's sharing power with his political rival, and their unity government is only just getting on its feet. At the same time, the fighting season with the Taliban is about to get underway. Those challenges have the Obama administration reconsidering its plan for the withdrawal of American troops. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It was Secretary of State John Carey who helped negotiate an unusual power-sharing arrangement between political rivals President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. So when he hosts both men at Camp David on Monday, he'll need to make sure they can make this work, says Melanne Verveer, a former State Department official now at Georgetown University.

MELANNE VERVEER: This mixed marriage so to speak or this partnership government really needs to congeal.

KELEMEN: For Afghans, the stakes are high, and American officials seem to understand according to form Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy. She says there's a growing sense here that the U.S. should keep its troop levels where they are now - about 10,000 to get through this fighting season. And she'd like to see the U.S. think about its long-term defense posture.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: You know, part of this has been driven by an intelligence community that doesn't want to go blind in the region. That needs some eyes and ears on the ground, not just in Kabul, working in partnership with the Afghans to make sure that we know what's going in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This remains a critical region.

KELEMEN: In Afghan civil society, activist Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit agrees. Though, he cautions against focusing on too much on military aid. He's worried that the security forces could become the dominant economic power in a country so dependent on outside aid and riddled with corruption. He's encouraging the Obama administration to take a more balanced approach.

NADER NADERY: We understand the fatigue. We understand the difficulties that you have gone through. There are priorities globally. We understand all of that. But we say an investment that you've made is now slowly reaching to some sort of success. And we need not to drop it.

KELEMEN: A big question hanging over Afghanistan's future is whether this new government can reach some kind of peach peace deal with the Taliban. UN envoy Nicholas Haysom says he's seen some positive signs that he hopes to nurture.


NICHOLAS HAYSOM: Peace processes are fragile things. They're like seedlings. They've got to dig routes. You've got to have meetings whose sole objective is to have another meeting rather than to deliver, as it were, final products in cease fires in the short-term.

KELEMEN: Speaking at a recent conference at the Wilson Center here in Washington, Haysom says for now, contacts will remain under the radar and could easily be undermined by the spring fighting season. And that's another reason for Washington not to pull troops out too quickly, according to Michele Flournoy, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security.

FLOURNOY: If they are going to be able to negotiate with the Taliban, the Taliban actually does come to the table and negotiate seriously. Afghanistan will need the full force of the international community behind them to get the kinds of terms that we will ultimately judge would have been worth fighting for.

KELEMEN: President Obama has been trying to end America's long-running wars in the region, promising to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by next year. But asked how he can now talk about a long-term military commitment, Flournoy cited other examples in history - postwar Europe and an Korea. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.