The leader of Afghanistan visited the White House on Tuesday, ready to ask President Obama for a delay in the scheduled withdrawal of US troops from his war-torn nation.
President Ashraf Ghani and other officials from Afghanistan’s new “unity government” also met with Obama as part of an effort to improve US-Afghan relations that deteriorated under predecessor Hamid Karzai.
Obama and Ghani did not comment to reporters during a brief photo opportunity; Obama noted that the two leaders will hold a joint news conference at the White House in the mid-afternoon.
The Obama administration has planned to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan from some 9,800 to about 5,500 by the end of this year; Ghani has said he wants more US troops to stay longer as Afghanistan seeks to build up its own military.
“President Ghani has indicated a desire to bring that up and discuss that personally with the president,” said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest. “This is an issue the president and his national security team have already been talking about for some time.”
Ghani, who has also spoken this week with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry, said Monday that “we are bound by common interests and will act together to ensure both the safety of United States and the safety of Afghanistan.”
The question of specific troop numbers, Ghani added, “is a decision for the president of the United States.”
Earnest emphasized that Obama wants nearly all troops of Afghanistan by the time he leaves office in January 2017, except for a security presence at the US embassy and other facilities. “We’re talking about in the neighbourhood of 1,000 to 1,500 troops,” the spokesman said.
As he seeks to end US military operations in Afghanistan, Obama is looking to forge a better relationship with Ghani than he had with Karzai, who often clashed with American officials.
Ghani won a close and disputed election last year in Afghanistan. Amid arguments about the vote, Ghani and chief opponent Abdullah Abdullah agreed to form a unity government, with Abdullah tabbed as “chief executive officer.” Abdullah also attended the White House meetings.
The US and Afghanistan officials planned to discuss “a range of issues including security, economic development, and U.S. support for the Afghan-led reconciliation process,” says the White House schedule.
The White House says “this marks the first meeting between the two presidents at the White House following the 2014 presidential election, which produced the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history.”
After their meetings with Ghani, Carter and Kerry pledged continuing US military and economic assistance to Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the Afghanistan president addresses a joint session of Congress. Later in the week, he speaks with other world leaders at the United Nations.