In an extraordinary moment more than 13 years in the making, the second elected Afghan president since the fall of the Taliban stood in the hub of America’s military community and thanked the troops’ sacrifice to liberate and build his country.
More than 850,000 U.S. troops and civilians, along with thousands of contractors, have served in Afghanistan since the war began in October 2001, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reminded all at the beginning of the ceremony in the Pentagon courtyard. “We remember the 2,215 Americans and their spouses, parents, sons, and daughters who paid the ultimate price during the course of the conflict,” Carter said.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had warm words for those “who have sacrificed continually since 9/11 to bring us freedom and hope.”
“Each one of you has left a legacy but I also understand Afghanistan has marked you,” he said, noting “sometimes you wake up at night not sure whether you’re there or here” and realize “I’ve left a piece of my heart in Afghanistan.”
“Thank you,” Ghani said.
“Each one of you also has left a memory in the heart of every Afghan that you’ve touched and encountered,” the president continued, adding that U.S. forces were “not there just to fight” but “you built schools, you built roads” while bringing “an attitude of caring and sacrifice.”
The Afghan National Security Forces, which includes military and police, now “emulate the best of your example.”
While thanking the troops and their families, Ghani stressed thanks “mostly to the American taxpayer — the men and women who have had made your hard-earned dollars available for Afghanistan.”
The partnership between the U.S. and Afghanistan now enters a different “phase,” he said, focusing on “building resources,” trade with Europe through the supply road left by coalition forces, and ensuring that Afghanistan can meet the growing security challenges.
Ghani has admitted ISIS is now inside Afghanistan, telling NBC News “we have sufficient evidence that they were targeting us because to their narrative, to their storyline, Afghanistan is central.” That’s the Khorasan region touted by the Islamic State.
“We are not going to be a burden,” Ghani vowed to the Pentagon community, giving a nod to JFK when he added Afghanistan wants to focus on what it can do for the world instead of what the world can do for Afghanistan. “We are going to get our house in order.”
On terrorism, not just ISIS but the more persistent and deadly Taliban threat, “We are a front-line state. We die on a daily basis.”
“We die, but we will never be defeated,” Ghani added. “…We the people of Afghanistan are willing to speak truth to terror… we are going to overcome.”
The current partnership with the United States, the president said, “is foundational because we will be the first line of defense globally.”
Ghani said his “fondest hope to veterans is we hope to welcome you in Afghanistan as tourists,” where “millions of us will be able to thank you personally, shake your hand, welcome you into our homes.”
To the sounds of the Washington Post March, Ghani shook hands and greeted troops and family members on the lawn.
Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah meet with President Obama on Tuesday for a “working lunch” at the White House.
Abdullah and Ghani wrote in a joint Washington Post op-ed Friday that “while the opportunities to build peace and stability have never been greater, a new ecology of terror threatens to block not just our prosperity but yours as well.”
“Properly supported, Afghanistan is uniquely positioned to block the spread of extremism,” the leaders wrote. “With the bitter exception of the Taliban regime, Islam in Afghanistan has traditionally been inclusive and reflective, not violent and angry. And after 36 years of conflict, our people have become immunized against ideologically based conflict.”