WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday morning, Ashraf Ghani came to Capitol Hill with a mission: After a decade of tumult between Washington and Kabul, he needed to sell a new Afghanistan.
Picture for a moment, he said, what the success story should look like. A historic state, rich in culture and history, that celebrates gender equality and maintains a thriving economy; a Muslim partner in the West’s fight against Islamic extremism, capable of sustaining its own security in a region where there’s little to begin with. Within the decade, he said, this will be Afghanistan.
And standing ovation after standing ovation, the United States Congress bought it.
“It was an excellent speech ... it showed a great deal of gratitude by the Afghan people for the sacrifices of America,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It also laid a roadmap as to how Afghanistan is going to prosper and be secure, and gave a sense that this isn’t an open-ended commitment. When he talked about within this decade, well, we’re halfway through the decade, so that means five years. That’s a very reasonable timeframe that can be achieved.”
Ghani’s address Wednesday to a joint meeting of Congress was a clear departure after more than a decade of marked frustration between Kabul and Washington, a historically antagonistic relationship personified by Hamid Karzai, whom Ghani replaced last September.
On one hand, the new Afghan leader had his work cut out for him this morning. There was certainly no love lost for Karzai in Washington, whose parting words last year evolved into a diatribe against the U.S., laced with bitterness and accusations of betrayal after a military occupation of his country that had lasted more than a decade.
“I had multiple terse conversations with Karzai. He was ... a lot of words I could use which probably wouldn’t be helpful to the cause,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) after Ghani’s address. “President Karzai was obviously not particularly grateful for the role that the United States and others have played in securing their country and it showed. I’m glad that he’s gone, and I’m glad that new leadership is in place.”
Indeed, Ghani walked out of the House chamber Wednesday with perhaps the heaviest U.S. expectations in the Middle East region: He not only carried the weight of Washington's disappointment in Karzai, but a hefty, ambitious blueprint for Afghanistan's future.
And he wasted little time in atoning for what Washington sees as his predecessor's sins.
Where Karzai lacked appreciation, Ghani made up for it tenfold Wednesday, extending olive branch after olive branch to U.S. lawmakers, troops and NGOs who he said have helped stabilize and revitalize a country that, not so long ago, was teetering on the brink of being a failed state.
“We owe a profound debt to the 2,315 servicemen and women killed and the more than 20,000 who have been wounded in service to your country and ours,” Ghani said. “The people of Afghanistan recognize the bravery of your soldiers and the tremendous sacrifices that Americans have made to keep Afghanistan free.”
Highlighting continued improvements in education, gender equality, healthcare and the economy, Ghani painted for U.S. lawmakers an image of a peaceful, self-sustaining Afghanistan; a state rich with history and culture that’s economically sound, he said, free of corruption and self-sustaining in its security apparatuses.
This week’s visit was the first for the Afghan leader since taking over the helm of Kabul in September, and the first joint address by an Afghan president to Congress in more than a decade.
The dynamic speech did not disappoint, and neither did Ghani’s progress while in town. The likely capstone of his visit came Tuesday, when after a daylong meeting at the White House, President Barack Obama agreed to halt the withdrawal of U.S. servicemembers from the country, leaving a residual force of 9,800 U.S. troops to bolster the country against a resurgent Taliban force.
Negotiations over that extension will be ongoing, with a potential bone of contention being the terms under which the troops stay. Where the Obama Administration likely will want the removal on a timeline, Ghani wants progress to be conditions-based. And he’s got powerful allies on both sides of the aisle backing him up.
“Conspicuous by its absence [in the speech] was any endorsement of the president's revised plan, which kicks the can down the road just for an extra year,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “[Ghani] believes, and I am convinced it has to be, conditions-based ... in other words, they think they’re getting better, they think they’re getting stronger, but they’re not ready for complete U.S. withdrawal to an embassy-based force.”
Ghani’s ambitious plans did raise a few eyebrows -- lawmakers specifically questioned whether Afghanistan could truly manage to sustain its own security within five years, particularly in light of the request to keep U.S. forces in country.
But the optimism was a welcome change.
“It is pretty ambitious,” Corker said. But, he added, “I’m glad he’s aggressive. If Afghanistan moves 80 percent in the direction that he laid out today, it’ll be a vast, vast improvement.”
Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) put it another way.
“How can you be in that region of the world and not be overly optimistic?” he asked. “If you didn’t, it would be tough to get out of bed in the morning.”
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