Ashraf Ghani is making his first official visit to the US as Afghanistan's president today and the stakes are dauntingly high. Washington is reconsidering the scale and pace of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and peace talks with the Taliban remain a looming question mark in the coming months.
Ghani, who spent years in Washington as a World Bank official, is getting a warm welcome in the US as he works to repair a relationship left tarnished by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who was once acquiescent to the Americans but turned hostile toward them during his last years in office. Ghani hopes to secure assurances that the US won't pull out its men and money too quickly.
Ghani is accompanied on the trip by Abdullah Abdullah, his former political rival who is now vaguely defined as the government's chief executive officer. After months of wrangling following last April's election, Ghani and Abdullah agreed to form a US-brokered unity government, but details of that power sharing agreement remain unclear and tensions persist.
Talking with the Taliban
The unsolved rivalry between Ghani and Abdullah is hardly Afghanistan's biggest problem at the moment, as long-in-the-making peace talks with the Taliban have so far not materialized, despite a recent flurry of rumors and leaks.
Both the Afghan government and the Taliban recently denied reports that peace talks were imminent — but that doesn't necessarily mean the rumors are false, as several political observers have noted. Still, there are deep running reservations from both camps about the talks, and the Taliban in particular has grown increasingly divided.
"There's been a lot of momentum and a lot of movement," Faiysal AliKhan, a Pakistani analyst who has been following talks with the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, told VICE News. "But among the Taliban there are two different camps: one which is more interested in pursuing the peace talks and possibly playing a role in the Afghan government going forward, and another which feels that until the condition of foreign forces leaving the country is done, then they don't want in."
Foreign forces are unlikely to leave anytime soon, however, and President Barack Obama is widely expected to meet Ghani's request during this visit for a slower withdrawal.
'The upcoming fighting season will likely be the fiercest and most lethal of the past decade.'
The original US withdrawal schedule has already been modified. One of Ghani's first moves after being elected president was to sign an agreement with the US allowing for some 10,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan in a training capacity beyond the official "end" of US combat — something Karzai had refused to do. Since then, US military commanders have repeatedly argued for an extended stay, and the White House has given plenty of signs that it's ready to walk back on its plans and keep more troops there longer.
Earlier this week, senior officials said two major US military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad were likely to stay open beyond the end of 2015, Reuters reported, part of an effort to avoid a security collapse like the one seen in Iraq after the Americans left.
Iraq, it seems, has served as a cautionary tale for withdrawing too quickly from Afghanistan.
"President Obama has to decide the slope, the pace, of the withdrawal, but all indications are that he'll delay," a senior administration official recently told the New York Times. "There's a partner there now, and the thinking is that we should help," another official said.
That may be unpopular for some in the US but it is welcome by many — though not all — in Afghanistan. The Afghan security forces remain plagued by defections and continue to face massive casualties as they struggle to maintain control of he country.
"While the Afghan security forces have made remarkable progress in number and capabilities, they're not ready," Ahmad Majidyar, an Afghan analyst and senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, told VICE News. "Any withdrawal needs to be based on realities on the ground rather than political calendar in Washington."
Majidyar called the seeming willingness on the part of the US to stay in Afghanistan "encouraging."
"A complete pullout in two years risks undoing gains of the past 14 years and allowing the Taliban and other foreign terrorist groups to reestablish themselves in parts of Afghanistan," he added.
But while Afghan officials need continued US involvement to curb ongoing Taliban offensives, the presence of foreign troops is also bound to keep those offensives coming.
As spring approaches in Afghanistan, so does the yearly spike in violence — or "fighting season," as it has been dubbed.
Deep divisions within the Taliban — with some former members of the militant group now pledging allegiance to the Islamic State — will likely make this spring one of the more violent on record.
That's a dreadful prospect for Afghan civilians. As the Taliban moved to regain control of entire districts which foreign troops left to local forces in the past year, civilians suffered the highest number of casualties since the 2001 US invasion.
"The upcoming fighting season will likely be the fiercest and most lethal of the past decade," Majidyar said. "The Taliban is expected to try to take advantage of foreign troops' withdrawal to put pressure on the Afghan forces, undermine people's confidence in the Afghan government, and reclaim territories they lost during the military surge time. This year they will likely come in big numbers to capture certain strategic districts in the eastern and southern regions."
The prospect of peace talks is also fraught with risk, with opponents likely to attempt to derail the process by any means necessary.
"Everyone is preparing for a spring offensive and expecting some sort of push by these groups to try to demonstrate to the people that they are very much a strong player at this stage," AliKhan said. "These are intimidation tactics by those that are not for this process and this is something we expect to see more of, because there are so many who are not for this process."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi