Saturday, March 21, 2015, 9:06 p.m.
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani publicly acknowledged for the first time Saturday that the Islamic State is gaining influence in Afghanistan as he prepared to leave for the United States and attempt to slow the withdrawal of American troops.
Reports have been growing that commanders of the Islamist Taliban forces fighting the Afghan government are swearing allegiance to the terrorist network that controls swathes of Syria and Iraq, sometimes called “Daesh.”
“Daesh’s characteristic is that it is man-eating. It swallows its competitors,” Ghani said in a briefing. “Here, it is not physical presence of people from Syria or Iraq. It is the network effect.”
The Afghan president is heading to the United States on Sunday — his first trip to Washington as head of state. He has a daunting and delicate task: He needs firm commitment of American military support in his fight against groups such as the Taliban and an ISIS affiliate, which he and American military leaders fear is finding a foothold in Afghanistan.
Ghani’s relationship with Washington stands in stark contrast to that of his acrimonious predecessor, Hamid Karzai, whose antagonism toward the United States culminated in a refusal to sign security agreements with Washington and NATO before leaving office. Ghani signed the pacts within days of becoming president in September and has since enjoyed a close relationship with diplomats and military leaders.
“It’s important for Afghanistan that the United States has trust in the leaders of the country and uses this visit to show its support for the new government,” said Afghan political analyst Jawed Khoistani. “A long-term American presence in Afghanistan is essential.”
Ghani’s weeklong trip, which begins Sunday, occurs as the Afghan army is waging its first solo offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province, their southern heartland, seeking a decisive victory ahead of the spring fighting season as evidence it can carry the battle without American and NATO combat troops that withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
Ghani, who was involved in planning the Helmand operation, started in February, will ask the United States for enhanced backup in the offensive, including air support, several officials close to the Afghan president told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the upcoming visit.
There are 13,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, about 9,800 American troops and 3,000 from NATO — down from a peak of 140,000 in 2009-2010. Those still here are involved in training and supporting Afghan security forces, with battlefield backup only when necessary. Half of the American troops are engaged in counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Officials have said the Obama administration is set to abandon plans to draw down to 5,500 troops by year’s end, bowing to military leaders’ requests. And while no final decision on numbers has been made, the United States is expected to allow many of the troops to remain well into 2016.
However, Ghani has signaled in talks ahead of the visit that he wants the United States to maintain 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through the next decade, said a European military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Even more important is the presence of U.S. and NATO bases, which are to be dismantled in mid-2016, according to plans — an undertaking that would take assets away from the fight.
Keeping the bases going would reaffirm Afghanistan’s strategic importance to the United States. And though Ghani is likely to get a commitment for funding, training and support for the Afghan military beyond 2016, his request to keep the bases open beyond that timeframe is still on the table, the European official said.
U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan agree that the bases in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad should remain open “as long as possible,” the European official said.