Afghan President Ashraf Ghani secured an agreement from the White House on Tuesday to slow the the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, amid concerns that the country could witness a security collapse like that seen in post-occupation Iraq.
President Obama agreed to keep 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan until the end of the year, providing sustained US support during the spring fighting season. The US troop presence was originally supposed to be reduced to 5,500 by the end of the year.
"This flexibility is going to ensure and provide confidence to our security forces and our people and is also going to send very strong signal to the region that this cooperation is not short term but enduring and long term," Ghani said during a joint press conference with Obama. It was Ghani's first official visit to the White House as Afghan president.
But Obama held firm to his long-term plan, which only foresees a small contingent of 1,000 troops to protect the US embassy and advise the Afghan government and military on security matters. The US president is keen to keep his campaign promise and end the longest war in American history by the time he leaves office.
"The timeline for withdrawal down to an embassy-centered presence, a normalization of our presence in Afghanistan, remains the end of 2016," Obama told reporters. "That hasn't changed."
'Original plan unrealistic'
Both Obama and Ghani praised the Afghan military for performing well thus far, defying predictions that a security collapse would occur as coalition forces drew down. But according to former US ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, the security forces will need sustained American support beyond the dates originally set by the Obama administration.
"The original plan was unrealistic," Neumann told DW. "The dates selected were not connected to any assurance of where we would be. This decision in my judgment is much more based on reality, on really evaluating what risks there are, what risks need to be prevented, and what needs to be done."
Gen. John Campbell, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, had previously expressed concern that reducing US forces levels to 5,500 by the end of 2015 could jeopardize the training and assistance mission run out of the major bases in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.
In particular, many Afghan forces have not completed training in areas such as logistic systems and artillery integration, according to Neumann. Completing that training requires US outreach outside of Kabul.
"We need the hubs, those four main provincial bases that we have in order to carry out that mission," Neumann said. "Ghani knows that, and our own military commanders know that, and therefore recommended that we hold on to those for a little while longer."
President Obama went out of his way on Tuesday to underline the importance of his Afghan counterpart's leadership for their bilateral relations, saying that Ghani had "taken on the mantle of commander in chief in a way that we have not seen in the past from Afghan presidents." The US relationship with Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had been notoriously difficult.
"We treated President Karzai badly," Neumann said. "Karzai began to believe that we were against him and deliberately maneuvering to delegitimize him. It was a downward spiral of misunderstanding on both sides and it got to the point where neither side trusted anything the other side said."
With a "much smoother" bilateral relationship taking shape, the former ambassador believes the US could remain in Afghanistan for a "very long time," given the growing concern shown in Congress about preventing Afghanistan from experiencing the type of collapse recently seen in Iraq.