Afghan president: ‘We owe a profound debt’ to the United States

Afghan president: ‘We owe a profound debt’ to the United States
© Greg Nash

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a Wednesday address to Congress thanked the American public and the U.S. military for making “great sacrifices” to help his country.

“We owe a profound debt to the 2,315 servicemen and women killed and the more than 20,000 who have been wounded in service to your country and ours,” Ghani said, noting that more than a million “brave Americans” had served in Afghanistan.

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“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,” the recently elected Afghan leader added.

"We have made great sacrifices, we Afghans, but then it is our patriotic duty to do so," he said.

"Thank you for staying with us," Ghani said.

President Obama announced on Tuesday that he would delay the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Under the president’s revised timeline, the U.S. will keep 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2015, nearly double the 5,500 he had previously planned.

The president stressed that he remains committed to reducing the U.S. troop presence to a small number that would protect the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Kabul by the end of 2016.

“We agreed to continue to keep in place our close security cooperation,” Obama said at a news conference with Ghani. “Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place.”

The pace of troop reductions in 2016 will be determined later this year, the White House said in a statement.

Ghani’s nearly hourlong address, which was interrupted multiple times by applause, capped what has been a well-received trip to Washington for the foreign leader.

Vice President Biden was on hand for the speech, sitting behind Ghani, next to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Earlier this month, Biden was notably absent when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress because he was traveling outside the country.

Ghani used his speech to try to assure the public and Congress that he understands their concerns about his country, and detailed a plan to achieve self-reliance “within a decade” by eliminating corruption, balancing the budget, mobilizing women and youth and growing the economy.

Ghani rattled off various accomplishments he said Kabul had racked up since the U.S. war began in 2001, and touted that 3 million girls are now in school — a line that drew a standing ovation from lawmakers.

The Taliban had kept girls out of school when they controlled Afghanistan and provided safe haven to al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks.

Though he painted the future as bright, Ghani warned of the "unexpected rise or religious extremism" in the region and said it is “critical that the world understand the terrible threat” posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“We are the front line,” Ghani said, adding that Afghanistan’s people have rejected violent movements in the region.

"We are willing to speak truth to terror,” he said.

He also said Muslims “who believe that Islam is a religion of tolerance and virtue must find their voice. Silence is not acceptable."

Ghani stress that Afghans want to be free to do things like “shop without being blown up, to play volleyball without being attacked.”

“So many of our children I've seen killed and mutilated. That cannot be permitted. That will not be permitted,” he said.

Ghani said both Kabul and Washington must address “the elephant that is lurking in the back of the room. We must secure peace.”

He said his government will use diplomacy with other nations to deny safe haven to extremist groups and build up the ability of its own national forces to battle groups like al Qaeda.

Ghani said he would negotiate with the Taliban, but that the group must “choose to be Afghan” before its members could be welcomed back into mainstream society, remarks that drew tepid applause.

He drew his address to a close by emphasizing that his country will someday stand on its own.

“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. We are not going to be the lazy uncle Joe!”

“Never again will our country be a host to terrorists. Never again will we give extremists the sanctuary to plan their destructive plots,” he said.

“Together, our two countries will finish the job that began on that clear, terrible, September morning almost 14 years ago."

— Updated at 12:48 p.m.