Then-presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani waves to the crowd at a campaign rally in Kabul on April 1, 2014. After a 2nd round of voting and a protracted dispute over allegations of fraud, Ghani assumed Afghanistan's presidency in September 2014.

Then-presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani waves to the crowd at a campaign rally in Kabul on April 1, 2014. After a 2nd round of voting and a protracted dispute over allegations of fraud, Ghani assumed Afghanistan's presidency in September 2014. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani’s first visit to Washington on Sunday highlights the marked improvement in U.S.-Afghan relations in the six months since he succeeded Hamid Karzai, who in recent years was openly disdainful of the country’s chief backer.

Washington is rolling out the red carpet for Ghani and his government’s chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, who was Ghani’s rival in the contentious elections and joined the Cabinet as part of a U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal.

Underscoring the thaw in relations, President Barack Obama is expected to agree to Ghani’s request to slow the pace of withdrawal of U.S. troops over the next two years to allow more time to train and equip the Afghan army and police.

“The more focus there is on empowerment of Afghan forces, the more successful they will be in the field,” said Naqibullah Safi, a former general and now a member of the national parliament. “Afghan forces can do this work better than U.S. troops because they understand the situation on the ground better, but they need to be equipped and trained properly.”

The Afghan army and police are almost 10 times bigger than the Taliban’s estimated 35,000 fighters, according to unofficial NATO reports. But many observers fear that the government forces, plagued by low morale and a high desertion rate, could be defeated without the support of NATO instructors — just as the Iraqi Army was last year when it faced an offensive by Islamic State militants.

Ghani will hold talks with Obama and other top administration officials, and he will address a joint meeting of Congress. On Thursday, the Afghan delegation continues to New York to hold a series of meetings at the United Nations.

After taking over from Karzai last September, Ghani and Abdullah almost immediately signed a strategic agreement with Washington, setting the terms for about 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan to train and advise the security forces.

Since then, relations have improved and U.S. officials have indicated that they are willing to modify Obama’s original withdrawal schedule, which called for the roughly 10,600 American servicemembers to be cut by about half by the end of this year. Instead, the current number of troops — mainly advisers, force protection contingents and counter-terrorism teams — would likely be retained well into 2016 to help deal with expected Taliban summer offensives, The Associated Press reported last week.

“President Ghani has requested some flexibility in the troop drawdown timeline and base closure sequence over the next two years, and we’re actively considering this request,” State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki said Wednesday.

On Thursday, Reuters reported that American forces in Afghanistan may hold on to two sprawling military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad longer than initially expected.

Politicians and analysts in Kabul welcomed the news, saying a delay would give more time for the Afghan army and police to prepare to take on the Taliban with no outside help.

“Afghanistan still needs U.S. political support, so the president (Ghani) will have a good opportunity to solidify that support with his speech to Congress,” said Shahla Farid, professor of political science at Kabul University.

The move to delay the withdrawal comes amid widespread speculation about possible peace talks with Taliban insurgents, who are said to be under intense pressure from Pakistan — where many of their leaders reportedly reside — and other regional powers to start negotiating with Kabul to end the 14-year conflict.

Over the past decade, Kabul has repeatedly blamed Pakistan for sheltering members of the Afghan Taliban, saying Islamabad wielded so much influence with the insurgents that it could force them to the negotiating table.

But Afghan officials said that after last December’s bloody attack by Pakistani militants on an army school in Peshawar, Pakistan’s government has become much more willing to cooperate and to push the Taliban leadership to accept the idea of national reconciliation.

Ghani has made a point of cultivating relations with Islamabad, visiting there just a month after taking office, and the countries’ top military and intelligence officials have exchanged visits. The United States, China and other regional countries have been pushing for closer cooperation between the two neighbors dealing with a border-straddling insurgency.

A Taliban spokesman denied there had been any discussion of reviving the peace process, saying the insurgents would refuse to participate as long as foreign forces remain in Afghanistan.

“We are still actively involved in the fight, and in this kind of situation, peace talks would not be fruitful,” spokesman Zabiullah Mijahid said.

On Wednesday, Abdullah denounced a pair of Taliban suicide attacks in Kabul and southern Helmand province, saying the strikes would not break any momentum for a peace pact in Afghanistan.

But Shukria Stankazai, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament who is politically close to Ghani, said that despite the continuing violence, preparations for a new round of peace talks were in fact progressing well.

“The Pakistanis have finally become aware that the disease they have been fostering in the region is now a danger for themselves, and are pushing the Taliban,” she said.

And now, with reports that Islamic State militants who have overrun wide areas of Syria and Iraq may be trying to establish a foothold in Afghanistan as a competitor to the Taliban, “their leaders have an added impetus to participate in a peace process,” Stankazai said.

Afghan officials in several provinces have expressed concerns that the Islamic State group has been laying the groundwork for a presence in Afghanistan. Coalition officers, however, say they do no see signs of a any real military presence by the group but are watching the situation closely.

Another factor that could nudge the Taliban to the negotiating table is the success of an offensive by Afghan security forces against Taliban strongholds in southern parts of the country, foreign officials said.

The monthlong operation, the largest since the withdrawal of NATO forces from the region, is meant to disrupt Taliban preparations for a summer campaign there.

“They don’t want the Taliban to have any success,” said a NATO officer who asked no to be identified because he was not authorized to comment on Afghan operations.

Zubair. Babakarkhail and Stars and Stripes reporter Carlo Munoz contributed to this report.

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