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Afghan president: My country owes a "profound debt" to U.S. troops

Last Updated Mar 25, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

In a solemn address before Congress on Wednesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani thanked the U.S. for "advancing the cause of freedom" in Afghanistan, saying his country owes a "profound debt" to the over 2,300 Americans who died in the U.S. war there.

"More than one million brave Americans have served in Afghanistan," he said. "They have come to defend and to know our people. And in return, the people of Afghanistan recognize the bravery of your soldiers and the tremendous sacrifices that Americans have made to keep Afghanistan free." Lawmakers in the chamber stood and applauded for his words about U.S. troops.

Ghani also thanked lawmakers in the room for their "bipartisan support," and the "ordinary Americans whose hard-earned taxes have over the years built the partnership that has led to our conversation today."

"And finally, I would like to thank President Barack Obama," Ghani said. "He is an admirable and principled partner. His support for Afghanistan has always been conditional on our performance. I like and appreciate his clear and disciplined approach to American engagement."

"Our partnership with America and its allies has brought our country hope where we had none. We would, once again, like to thank you for that wonderful gift from your people to ours," Ghani said. "But in Afghanistan there is a saying that no gift can remain unreciprocated. Today I would like to return that gift of re-born hope by offering the American people a partnership with a nation that is committed to the cause of freedom and that will join the fight against the growing threat of terrorism."

Ghani stressed his commitment to the political and economic reforms that he said will allow his country to prosper. He touted the national unity government that he formed with his former election rival, Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah, and said they may not agree "on every issue, [but] we both believe deeply that spirited debate will produce better outcomes than will confrontational stalemate."

He pledged a comprehensive reform of Afghanistan's legal system, vowing to "end the impunity that has shielded corrupt officials from punishment." He also vowed to jumpstart Afghanistan's economy and integrate the country more fully with the global economic system.

He even offered an extended nod to the importance of women's equality. "No country in the modern world can be self-reliant with half of its population locked away; uneducated and unable to contribute its energy, creativity, and drive to national development," he said.

Ghani also vowed to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban, declaring, "The Taliban are not Al Qaeda."

"Many believe themselves to be patriots rebelling against the corruption and criminality that they saw in their towns and villages," he said. "Provided that combatants agree to respect the constitution and the rule of law as the outcomes of negotiations, we are confident that we can find a path for their return to society."

He pledged to protect "the hard-fought gains in education, health, governance, media freedom, and women's rights" as the state negotiates with the Taliban.

Ghani's speech was the public capstone of his first official visit to Washington since taking office last September, and the Afghan president spent much of the last several days in consultation with the administration. He arrived in Washington on Sunday, and on Monday, he joined Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other senior members of President Obama's national security team at Camp David. On Tuesday, he met with Mr. Obama at the White House.

The speech came at a pivotal moment for Afghanistan, which has been ransacked by war for much of the last 14 years. The U.S. formally ended its combat mission in the country at the end of last year. And though a new government offers some hope for the future, there are concerns that Afghan security forces are not yet up to the task of pushing back radicals who could throw the country into chaos or even carve out a safe haven for extremists to plot terrorist attacks of the sort al Qaeda enjoyed in Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001.

In his speech, Ghani reflected on how 9/11 affected him personally, saying the tragedy "was not a distant image that I watched on the emotionless screen of television - it was horrific and it was personal." He said he was in his office at the World Bank when the twin towers were struck, and that his daughter was living in New York at the time. A graduate of Columbia University, Ghani recalled his own experience in the city.

"I was another beneficiary of America's wonderful generosity that has built so many longstanding friendships through its unparalleled universities," he said. "I ate corned beef at Katz's, New York's greatest, greasi- est, pickle lined melting pot."

Fears that Afghanistan could slide into chaos have only been exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has seized territory in several Middle Eastern states and inspired groups across the region to rally to its banner. U.S. officials are loathe to see Afghanistan become another ISIS outpost after the expenditure of so much blood and treasure in that country.

Ghani had been pushing American officials to slow their planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. At a press conference after their meeting, Mr. Obama announced that the U.S. would do just that, leaving 9,800 service members in the country until the end of 2015 instead of half that number, as originally planned.

The president said his decision to slow the drawdown "reflects our reinvigorated partnership with Afghanistan, which is aimed at making Afghanistan secure and preventing it from being used to launch terrorist attacks."

"Reconciliation and a political settlement remain the surest way to achieve the full drawdown of U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan in a way that safeguards international interests and peace in Afghanistan, as well as U.S. national security interests," the president added.

The president's decision to alter the drawdown drew praise from Republicans in Congress who'd previously fretted that the U.S. withdrawal would be too precipitous.

Senate Foreign Relations Commiteee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, called the move "the right decision" and suggested it would help prevent instability in the region.

In his speech, Ghani said it's critical "the world understand the terrible threat" posed by ISIS.

"Afghanistan is carrying forward everyone's fight by containing this threat," he said. "But extremism is becoming a system, one that, like a dangerous virus, is constantly mutating, becoming more lethal, very media savvy, well financed, and thriving on state weakness and an overall lack of regional coordination."

He said there is a military component to the strategy to roll back extremism, but he added that such hateful ideologies "must be challenged and overcome from within" Islam.

"The heart of the issue remains who is entitled to speak for Islam. Leaders, intellectuals, and those many millions of Muslims who believe that Islam is a religion of tolerance and virtue must find their voice," he said. "Silence is not acceptable.'

In the meantime, however, he pledged to aggressively take the fight to extremists who would seek to find a home in Afghanistan, touting the strength increasing strength of Afghanistan's armed forces.

"Afghanistan will be the graveyard of Al-Qaeda and their foreign affiliates," he said. "Never again will our country be a host to terrorists. Never again will we give extremists the sanctuary to plan their destructive plots."

Lawmakers reacted favorably to Ghani's speech, applauding frequently as he spoke. It was a marked departure from frosty relationship many in Washington had with Ghani's predecessor, Hamid Karzai, whose tenure was marked by frequent acrimony with American officials.

The warm reception from members of both parties also provided a vivid counterpoint to the controversy that surrounded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress earlier this month. Some Democrats declined to attend that speech because House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did not consult the White House before inviting Netanyahu, and because the Israeli leader's speech was seen as an attempt to undercut U.S. negotiations with Iran.