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Tentative Hope, Continued Obstacles After Afghan Leaders’ U.S. Trip

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani gestures as he arrives to speak at Columbia University in New York on March 26.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani gestures as he arrives to speak at Columbia University in New York on March 26.

Seasoned observers of U.S.-Afghan relations say that after a successful trip to the United States by leaders of Afghanistan’s national unity government, the two countries have yet to overcome a number of key issues that will dominate their future relations.

In his first official U.S. visit since taking office last September, President Ashraf Ghani secured more than $4 billion in funding for Afghan security forces through 2017 and halted the planned pullout of U.S. troops this year.

Despite the United States’ assurances of a renewed commitment to bilateral relations, President Ghani’s fledgling unity government faces multiple obstacles, which would define the future relationship between the two allies.

These include widespread corruption, the struggling economy, the ongoing Taliban insurgency and high expectations from the current government among Afghans.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says Washington is convinced the national unity government has "good intentions and positive goals" but the real issue is how to transform these aspirations into a realistic and feasible plan.

"It needs to be real. It has to have a professional team and resources. The Afghan government will have to show its allies in the U.S. that real work is done toward fulfilling promises that were made in Washington," he said.

He is also convinced that progress is being made in Afghanistan. "Of course, it has not reached [the level] where a 21st-century country should be, and it needs long-term work. Afghanistan has lost some major opportunities, but generally, progress was made. However, the job is not done yet."

The former diplomat says Afghanistan straddles a fine line and could easily collapse into an Iraq-like chaos, which is something the United States does not wish to see.

"It is clear that President Barak Obama wants Afghanistan to be able to stand on its own two feet as soon as possible," he said.

Khalilzad stresses that the new Afghan government needs time for its progress to be widely visible and it is a process that demands the sort of mutual trust, patience and goodwill that was reflected in Washington.

But Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center think tank, has voiced concerns over the circumstances surrounding the new government, saying it is not the government that Afghans braved Taliban threats to vote into power.

It is a government, he says, which "emerged from externally driven negotiations to resolve an election crisis."

Kugelman says he even worries about the Afghan government's survival, "including in the short term."

"After six months, the cabinet remains unfilled, and Ghani and Abdullah, despite saying nice things about each other while in the U.S., remain rivals. Above all, expectations for this government among Afghans will be high, and if it doesn't produce signs of progress soon, the Afghan populace could grow impatient."

He says Washington could quickly change its views of the Afghan government if real work is not done soon, hinting at severed relations between the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration and the White House.

Karzai was widely admired and revered in Washington in the first few years after assuming power in 2001 but was later criticized for incompetence and widespread corruption.

However, Kugelman says it is early and that things can still change.

"The next few months will be key; U.S. leaders will be watching carefully to see if Ghani follows through on all the things he has promised to do," he said.