Afghan presidential hopeful vows to sign US troops pact

WASHINGTON: Afghan presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani vowed Friday to sign a security pact with the United States within a week if he wins an upcoming run-off election.
His pledge came only days after US President Barack Obama said the 32,000 American forces in Afghanistan will be scaled back to 9,800 by early 2015 and complete a full withdrawal by the end of 2016. “I’m committed to signing a bilateral security agreement within the first week of taking over,” Ghani said, addressing an audience in Washington via Skype from the western Afghan city of Herat. “The reason is that our national security forces need assurances regarding our global partnerships and the resources both human and material that would come through the bilateral security agreement,” Ghani told the Atlantic Council think-tank.
Ghani, a former World Bank economist, also laid out a vision on how to spur economic growth in his country which he said could drop to zero percent this year from 12 percent in 2012, pledging to bring about fundamental reforms. He is facing off against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, seen as the front-runner in the June 14 second round. But Ghani faces an uphill task after finishing second with 31.6 percent — behind Abdullah with 45 percent — in the eight-man first round on April 5.
Outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) laying out the terms of the US military presence once most combat troops leave at the end of this year. But Abdullah has also said he will sign the pact, and has been invited to address the Atlantic Council as well.
Obama’s new framework “telescopes a process that previously we might thought would take 10 years,” Ghani said. The plans also refuted claims by militant Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents that the US is “seeking permanent bases in Afghanistan” which means in the next two years the peace process “is going to have to take centre stage,” he said.
Ghani vowed to seek better regional ties with neighbours such as Pakistan, which he envisioned as a decade-long process, saying the two countries “can engage in the type of dialogue that France and Germany engaged in after World War II” and foreseeing that they could become “pillars of regional stability.” On the economy, Ghani called for the formation of a group comprising the biggest financial institutions such as the World Bank which by November — and a conference planned in London — would unveil a growth strategy to attract about $20 billion to set up a compact between the private and public sector in Afghanistan. He also laid out an ambitious plan of public works to create jobs and attract direct foreign investment from such countries as the Gulf nations. 
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday defended President Barack Obama’s newly announced strategy on Afghanistan amid criticism that the president will withdraw troops at a much too rapid clip. “The president set a timetable. He said in 2009: We will transfer security responsibility to the Afghans by such and such a date. That was last year and this year, predominately. We’ ve done it,” Kerry told the PBS News Hour host Gwen Ifill in a televised interview.
“They had a very successful election, and they provided the security and they did the planning and they did the execution. That is exactly what the president is now trying to do with respect to the final steps,” he added. Obama said the United States will keep 9,800 troops in the war-ravaged country beyond the end of combat operations this year, with all remaining troops to be pulled out by the end of 2016, after which security duties will be handed over to Afghan forces. But many argue that the timetable is arbitrary and not based on events on the ground. Some pundits even say the deadline is a means by which Obama can promote his legacy and get credit for ending not only the war in Iraq but also the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan. 

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