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Afghan Gratitude, American Folly

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If you're looking for gratitude from the Afghans, President Ashraf Ghani is your man. When he appeared before Congress Wednesday, he expressed thanks to American troops, their families, Congress, Barack Obama and "ordinary Americans whose hard-earned taxes have over the years built the partnership" between the United States and Afghanistan.

He couldn't have laid it on any thicker if he'd been using a trowel. Americans in uniform, he attested, "have come to know our snowcapped mountains, our verdant valleys, our windswept deserts, our parched fields, our unharnessed, flowing rivers, and our plains of waving wheat." He said, "Veterans will always be welcome in Afghanistan."

It may be a tad early to sell his country as a tourist destination. And I'm guessing that when veterans think back to their time there, it's not the amber waves of grain that will be uppermost in their minds.

Still, after nearly a trillion U.S. dollars spent on the war, it's nice to hear someone on the other end of the money pipeline acknowledge our sacrifices. It's definitely a change from Ghani's predecessor.

Though his government survived financially only through Western aid, Hamid Karzai was never happy. He accused the U.S. of carrying out terrorist attacks that it blamed on the enemy. He complained that we didn't provide modern weapons. He refused to sign the bilateral security agreement he had negotiated, providing a basis for U.S. forces to remain in the country. He even threatened to join the Taliban.

Karzai often brought to mind the 19th-century Austrian statesman Felix Schwarzenberg. When warned of the dangers of incurring a debt to the Russian czar, legend has it, he replied that his country would "astonish the world with the magnitude of her ingratitude."

Not that the Afghan president was congenitally incapable of expressing thanks. "They do give us bags of money — yes, yes, it is done, we are grateful to the Iranians for this," he announced unabashedly in 2010.

He acknowledged getting bundles of cash from the CIA, too. Where Iran's money and ours went is an open question. Karzai and his family apparently managed to get rich during our time there.

Last year Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the fourth most corrupt country on Earth.

Ghani's cooperative stance may be one reason President Barack Obama has decided to hold off the withdrawal of more than 4,000 troops that were supposed to come home by the end of this year.

But other reasons predominate. No one believes the Afghan are quite ready to take full responsibility for their own security. Having seen Iraq go from bad to worse following the U.S. departure, Obama is not willing to take that chance in Afghanistan. "We want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed, so we don't have to go back," he said at a news conference with Ghani.

It's probably too much to think the postponement will change the ultimate outcome. But if Afghanistan is going to fall into even greater chaos and violence when we leave, Obama may prefer to let his successor take responsibility for the failure.

He is careful to minimize the shift in policy. "His plan to reduce the American military presence to about 1,000 by the time he leaves office in 2017 remains unchanged," reported The Wall Street Journal. If you believe that, I've got some oceanfront property in Kandahar to sell you.

The administration has gone far beyond what could reasonably have been expected of the U.S. Early in his presidency, Obama more than tripled the number of American troops there.

The troop surge was intended to break the back of the Taliban, give the Kabul government time to achieve self-sufficiency and establish enough stability for us to make a quiet exit. Yet here we are, five years later, still waiting for that turnaround.

In his memoir, "Duty," Obama's defense secretary Robert Gates said he favored the surge, which was accompanied by a plan to withdraw by the end of 2014. "I was convinced that we could dramatically weaken the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan army during that period — and if not, then we probably never could." What part of "never" does the president not understand?

It was George W. Bush's war, but 75 percent of the U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan have died under Obama. That figure will rise before we are done, if we are ever done.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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