Afghan president says his nation won’t be ‘lazy Uncle Joe’

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addresses a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday thanked Congress for the billions of American taxpayer dollars, but vowed his country will be self-reliant within this decade. “We’re not going to be the lazy uncle Joe,” he said.

In a speech to a joint meeting of Congress, Ghani tried to repair U.S.-Afghan relations that had become strained under former President Hamid Karzai.

Ghani, wearing a gray western suit, peppered his speech with anecdotes about the time he’s spent in America and touched on themes he hoped would convince lawmakers that he will be a reliable U.S. partner.

He offered examples of how Afghanistan has made gains in health and education and voiced support for the youth and rights of women, including those who want to be president of the country. He admitted that decades of war have resulted in high levels of fraud and graft in Afghanistan.

“We will eliminate corruption,” Ghani said, boldly predicting that within this decade his nation will no longer be reliant on U.S. and international aid.

“I know American people are asking the same question as the Afghan people: Will we have the resources to provide a sustained basis for our operations? And the answer is within this decade, we will.”

That’s a tall order. Ghani acknowledged that more than a third of Afghans live below the poverty line and his nation is not at peace. Hours before he spoke, at least six people were killed and more than 30 were wounded in a suicide car bombing near the presidential palace in Kabul.

Ghani humbly thanked Congress for the nearly $107 billion it has appropriated for Afghanistan so far. Lawmakers have been critical about the years and years of U.S. troop deployments in America’s longest war, wasteful spending in Afghanistan and Karzai’s anti-American rhetoric.

Ghani, who runs the country with chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, promised to be good steward of continued U.S. assistance to his country as it works to rebuild while struggling against a stubborn insurgency.

“We owe a profound debt to the soldiers who have lost limbs to buried bombs, to the brave veterans, and to the families who tragically lost their loved ones to the enemy’s cowardly acts of terror,” Ghani said.

“We owe a profound debt to the many Americans who have come to build schools, repair wells, and cure the sick. And we must acknowledge with appreciation that at the end of the day it is the ordinary Americans whose hard-earned taxes have over the years built the partnership that has led to our conversation today.”

Ghani is untested as a leader, yet he received a warm reception from both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. The reason: He’s not Karzai.

Toward the end of his tenure, Karzai did not think the U.S. was holding Afghanistan’s interests front and center. He repeatedly railed against the thousands of civilians being killed and said the war against terrorists should not be fought in the villages of his country. U.S. officials and lawmakers did not think Karzai’s comments were appropriate given that 2,200 U.S. servicemen and women had been killed and billions of U.S. tax dollars had been spent during the conflict.

In a shift from his previous plan, Obama said the U.S. would leave its 9,800 troops in Afghanistan in place rather than downsizing to 5,500 by year’s end. The size of the U.S. footprint for next year is still to be decided, Obama said, but he brushed aside any speculation the withdrawal will bleed into 2017. That means the slowdown won’t jeopardize his commitment to end America’s involvement in Afghanistan before leaving office.

Deficiencies in the Afghan security forces, heavy casualties in the ranks of the army and police, a fragile new government and fears that Islamic State fighters could gain a foothold in Afghanistan combined to persuade Obama to slow the withdrawal.

Ghani told the lawmakers packed into the House chamber that IS militants pose a “clear and present danger” to Afghanistan and other states in western and central Asia.

“Terrorist movements whose goal is to de-stabilize every state in the region are looking for new bases of operation,” he said. “We are the frontline, but the terrorists neither recognize boundaries nor require passports to spread their messages of hate and discord.”

“From the west, the IS militants are sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan. To the south, Pakistan’s counter-insurgency operations … are pushing the Taliban from south Waziristan (in Pakistan) towards Afghanistan’s border regions,” Ghani said.

And he challenged leaders, intellectuals and the millions of Muslims who believe that Islam is a religion of tolerance and virtue to speak out against Islamic extremism.

“Silence is not acceptable,'” he said.

On a lighter note, Ghani drew laughter when he talked about his time living in New York. “I ate corned beef at Katz’s, New York’s greatest, greasiest, pickle-lined melting pot,” he said.

Ghani’s speech contrasted with the one received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke to lawmakers earlier this month. Some Democrats skipped his speech, in which he warned the U.S. that an emerging international agreement the U.S. was trying to reach with Tehran would pave Iran’s path to developing nuclear weapons.

Just before stepping from the chamber, Ghani gave a bear hug to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.

DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press

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