Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told U.S. lawmakers that his country owed a "profound debt" to the United States and the more than 2,300 U.S. troops who died to "advance the cause of freedom."
"The people of Afghanistan recognize the bravery of your soldiers and the tremendous sacrifices that Americans have made to keep Afghanistan free," Ghani told a joint meeting of Congress.
“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,” he said in a nearly hourlong speech.
Ghani also thanked the U.S. for development aid and other civilian assistance. And he promised he would be a good steward of continued U.S. assistance — nearly $107 billion so far — to his country as it works to rebuild while struggling against a stubborn insurgency.
“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 said, vowing his country would become self-reliant within a decade.
Afghans, he said, want peace, good governance and self-reliance. “We don’t want your charity," he said. "We have no more interest in perpetuating a childish dependence than you have in being saddled with a poor family member who lacks the energy and drive to go out and find a job.”
Warm welcome in Congress
He received a warm welcome from both Republicans and Democrats, as well as long bursts of applause and several standing ovations. He also 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."
Ghani's visit to the United States and his speech to Congress is part of an effort to repair relations between the two countries that were strained by nearly 14 years of war and a troubled relationship with former President Hamid Karzai.
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Hailing a revived "partnership" with Washington, the Afghan leader also gave a nod of recognition to Congress' role in buttressing a nation ravaged by the Taliban and poverty.
"The service of American men and women, civilian or military, in our country has been made possible by the bipartisan support of the Congress of the United States," he said.
"On behalf of our own parliament and people, I salute and thank you," Ghani said.
House Speaker John Boehner, who presided over Ghani's address, said lawmakers were honored by his speech, "particularly his tributes to the brave Americans who have served and sacrificed in Afghanistan."
"Congress remains committed to securing the gains our forces have made together and completing our mission successfully," the Ohio Republican said. "That is why we look forward to reviewing the specifics of President [Barack] Obama’s announcement regarding our force levels to ensure it meets the needs of our Afghan partners and our commanders on the ground."
U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, 2002 - 2015
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted his continued backing for Afghanistan, but urged greater accountability, saying, “Assistance will be tied to critical benchmarks for development and policy.”
Ghani's address came a day after he held talks with Obama, during which the U.S. leader announced that 9,800 American troops deployed in Afghanistan would stay through the end of the year, revising earlier plans to cut that number in half.
At a joint news conference after their meeting Tuesday, Obama said, "Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place, and insurgents still launch attacks, including cowardly suicide bombings against civilians."
Hours before Ghani spoke, at least six people were killed and more than 30 were wounded in a suicide car bombing near the presidential palace in Kabul.
The United States has ended combat operations in Afghanistan, where it once had 130,000 troops. Congress has been critical about U.S. troop involvement in America's longest war, wasteful spending in Afghanistan and Karzai's anti-American rhetoric.
However, lawmakers from both parties praised the White House announcement Tuesday about slowing the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also praised Obama's decision to keep the current level of 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2015.
"It's a sign of flexibility that confirms the strong commitment of the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan," Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday at a Washington press conference.
Islamic State threat
In his speech Wednesday, Ghani told U.S. lawmakers that the Islamic State group and its allies posed a “terrible threat” to the countries of western and central Asia.
Ghani said Islamic State militants were already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan “to test for vulnerabilities." He added that Pakistan's counterinsurgency operations were driving Taliban from South Waziristan toward Afghanistan's border regions.
He made clear that his government would not support militants, denouncing states, which he did not identify, that he said were “tolerating, financing, providing sanctuary and using violent, nonstate actors as instruments of short-sighted policies.”
Ghani, who acknowledged "much work" lies ahead in ensuring his country's security, had asked for more flexibility in the withdrawal timeline for the U.S. forces who are still there training and advising the Afghan military.
Ghani said the change "will be used to accelerate reforms, to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces are much better led, equipped, trained and are focused on their fundamental mission."
The Obama administration is asking Congress for financial support to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces can remain at current levels — 352,000 troops — at least through late in 2016.
Despite slowing cuts in U.S. troop levels this year, Obama remains committed to having fewer than 1,000 in Afghanistan by early 2017.
Ghani also stressed the need for an Afghan-led peace process but said his government would not make peace with those who want to use Afghanistan "as a launching pad for global terrorism."
On Tuesday, Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani told VOA's "TV Ashna" that "the environment is there" for peace talks with the Taliban, and that the government hoped negotiations would begin "in the coming days."
On Wednesday, however, the Taliban said Obama's decision to slow the withdrawal of American troops would hamper peace efforts and vowed to continue fighting, the French news agency AFP reported.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP, "This damages all the prospects for peace. This means the war will go on until they are defeated."
Partnership to be tested
Security analyst Anthony Cordesman said Ghani and, to a lesser degree, Afghanistan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah "have both done an excellent job in rebuilding the relationship between [with] the United States.” He said the U.S.-Afghan partnership must continue but will be put to the test.
“Can we see the Taliban, the Haqqani network and others somehow suddenly disappear or become part of the government? The answer is clearly no," he said. "We are in for a real fight this year. We are almost certain to see the Taliban make some gains.”
On Thursday, Ghani and Abdullah will travel to the United Nations to meet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
VOA's Michael Bowman contributed to this report from the Capitol. Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.