When President Ashraf Ghani arrived in Washington last week, his delegation hoped to present a new Afghan face to the United States, after years of tension, writes Ali M. Latifi from Kabul.
When President Ashraf Ghani arrived in Washington, his delegation, including his election rival turned Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, hoped to present a new Afghan face to the United States.
In place of the increasing tensions that began to take root between the White House and Kabul during the final years of the presidency of Hamid Karzai, Ghani wanted to portray the new government of national unity, which he heads, as making inroads against endemic corruption and to show its good will as a partner of the United States.
While towards the end of his presidency Karzai took a more volatile tone with the United States, especially in regard to night raids and civilian casualties, Ghani has made repeated mention of US soldiers killed and injured while serving in Afghanistan during his trip. At a joint press conference with President Barack Obama, Ghani made sure to acknowledge US troop losses in Afghanistan from the outset.
"I'd like to take this opportunity to pay tribute … to the 2,215 American servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice," Ghani said only hours after he and Abdullah visited Arlington cemetery, where US troops killed in the line of duty are buried.
Reforms a high priority
Speaking to Deutsche Welle in advance of the trip, Abdul Salam Rahimi, Ghani's chief of staff, said the primary focus of the government has been reform.
So far, those reforms have included everything from the November reopening of the investigation into the $900 million collapse of Kabul Bank - the nation's largest savings and loan - to the sacking of dozens of officials in the Western province of Herat, to simple, every day logistical matters.
Previously, much of the government, said Rahimi, "used to move at an unproductive rate," but that under the new leadership they are working to address breakdowns and redundancies that allow for corruption. This efficiency is one way the Kabul government hopes to illustrate its fight against corruption at all levels.
"Now that they have a sense that their money is well spent cleanly and with accountability, we hope they don't give up on us just as we are moving towards change," Rahimi told DW.
With the Afghan economy having lost more than six billion dollars in economic activity during the nearly year-long election process and with unemployment hovering at approximately 35 percent, the need for the Ghani administration to convince Washington of its efforts in curbing graft is undeniable.
Abdul Waheed Wafa, Executive Director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, said the government has much to prove to the US. First and foremost, Wafa said, the trip, coming six months after Ghani's inauguration, will need to prove that the government of national unity is functional.
"They have to prove that a government made of two opposing groups can survive in the long term”, Wafa told DW. "This message of cooperation is one they must continue to convey to the US," he added.
Although, on Tuesday, Obama announced that the number of US soldiers currently in Afghanistan - 9,800 - will not be reduced to 5,500 at the end of 2015, as previously announced, Wafa said he doesn't foresee the trip as resulting in any major, or previously unexpected developments.
However, Wafa stressed that Ghani and Abdullah would be returning with a message to the Afghan people. Namely that "we have reset our relationship with the US, one of friendship and cooperation, which had been lost in the final years of the Karzai administration."
This message, though comforting, said Wafa, falls short of what the Afghan people would ideally want from the US at this point in their decades-old conflict.
"If over the last 13 years Washington was unable to pressure Pakistan to end its support of the Taliban, the Afghan people want the US now to try to pressure Islamabad to help lay the groundwork for a real peace process," Wafa said.
For many Afghans, Washington's pressure on Pakistan is especially important as Ghani and Abdullah had spent much of the preceding two months saying they have initiated "a comprehensive effort for establishing lasting peace in Afghanistan."
Pressure from Washington would also serve as a counterpoint to fears among some Afghans that Ghani has been too accommodating to Pakistan in a bid to get Islamabad to force the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. This, though, said Wafa, is a long-term goal and that in "the short term this trip can't bring substantially anything new;" instead, it is seen as a way for Kabul to reset the relations and begin on a positive note.
Students criticize the government
Abdul Wahid, 19, who is studying law at Kabul University, agrees that this trip will bring little change to US-Afghan relations.
"I have no hope in this trip. Very little of what goes in Afghanistan is in the hands of President Ghani or Dr Abdullah. We know all of the decisions are made in Washington," he said.
Although a functioning national unity government is one of the key messages the Ghani administration hopes to convey, Abdul Wahid, who had helped campaign for Dr Abdullah, said he has little faith in it.
"Nothing has gotten better. As soon as this government took office security started to deteriorate. It's not just suicide bombings, which have increased, but we also see the police unable to do their jobs," Abdul Wahid said in reference to the brutal killing of Farkhunda, a 28-year-old woman in Kabul, on the false charges of burning a Koran.
The police had been criticized for not doing enough to save Farkhunda from the angry mob of young men that had gathered at the Shah-Do Shamshira shrine, where she was killed. Mohmmad Reza, 22, studying communication technology, agreed that security must be the administration's top priority.
"Whatever it takes, they must work, including with the US, to improve security," Mohammad Reza said.
He used the kidnapping of 30 passengers aboard a bus in the southern province of Zabul as a worrying example of the deterioration of security.
Rahimi, Ghani's chief of staff, said the president understands the people's security concerns. To critics who say that the president has not done enough to address the security situation, Rahimi said: "60 per cent of the president's time over the last six months has been spent on military affairs to insure the security of the nation."
Mohammad Nadim, 19, said instead of so many foreign trips - The US visit comes after similar trips to China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Germany - the president and Dr Abdullah should be working on addressing domestic concerns.
"They should first establish their entire cabinet and announce the governors of all 34 provinces before worrying about international relations," Mohammad Nadim said.
During his campaign, Ghani had promised to announce a full cabinet within 100 days of taking office; however, more than six months after taking the oath of office, 17 high-level posts remain in the hands of caretakers left over from the previous administration.
Both students interview for this report point to their friends who fail to procure suitable employment upon graduation as a reason why the president must turn his focus back to domestic matters.
"So may of my friends who have graduated at the top of their class in everything from economics and law to engineering remain jobless. They either end up doing menial work or become thieves and drug addicts," Mohammad Nadim said.