The U.S. suddenly has two amenable war partners leading Iraq and Afghanistan after years of tempestuous relationships with their predecessors, who openly complained about and — in some cases — defied Washington.
Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister whose Shiite-centric policies and poor military decisions aggravated the State Department, has given way to Haider al-Abadi. Thrust to the helm of an occupied country with its military in shambles, Mr. al-Abadi has accepted an American playbook for reform.
Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, a blistering critic of how the U.S. ran the war, transferred the presidency to Ashraf Ghani in September.
Mr. Ghani, an academician and politician, talks of tying Afghanistan’s future to that of the U.S. He is courting a longer stay by U.S. troops, whom he thanks for their sacrifices. Last month, he stood shoulder to shoulder at the presidential palace with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Contrast this display of unity with a visit that Chuck Hagel made to Kabul as defense secretary two years ago in an effort to win a security agreement: Mr. Karzai refused to meet with him.
The mercurial Mr. Karzai, as his two terms in office were coming to an end, told the BBC that the U.S.-led NATO combat mission was to blame for much of Afghanistan’s suffering.
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“On the security front the entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life and no gains, because the country is not secure,” Mr. Karzai told the BBC.
Answering a question at the presidential palace last month, Mr. Ghani used the word “partnership” three times and “partner” once in referring to the U.S.
“In an enduring partnership, partners engage in comprehensive analysis to see what the state of play is, what is the balance force, how to use a multidimensional relationship to maximum effect,” he said.
Mr. Carter talked of “our strong and positive partnership with you, President Ghani.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a military scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written on the need to keep some U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond a 2016 pullout date, said Mr. Ghani is making several right moves, including sharing power with election opponent Abdullah Abdullah, who is now the government’s chief executive officer.
“There is enough that is going well that I’d have to give him high interim grades overall,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “First, his dealings with the United States seem very good. His dealings with Pakistan seem prudent and calm and constructive too, and that is just as important.”
In Iraq, Mr. al-Abadi, who took office one month before Mr. Ghani, likewise talks of a Baghdad-Washington partnership. He is reaching out to ethnic minority Sunnis and Kurds, which American diplomats have encouraged.
In his first few months, the Shiite Muslim Mr. al-Abadi fired scores of corrupt army commanders appointed by Mr. al-Maliki, and he inked an oil revenue sharing deal with Kurdish leaders in the north.
In other words, he met U.S. demands.
‘Frustrations’ with Baghdad
Mr. al-Abadi has taken power at a crossroads for Iraq’s young democracy: The Islamic State terrorist group controls more than one-third of the country, his army is in near disarray, and Sunni leaders are reluctant to join the fight.
Washington had a seething dislike for his predecessor.
“Since 2009, Maliki has systematically shredded and politicized the entire structure of the Iraqi Security Forces, replacing competent commanders with incompetent yet loyal commanders and creating a more sectarian institution that scares the average Iraqi as much as ISIS,” Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said last summer as the U.S. was trying to nudge Mr. al-Maliki out of office.
“We’ve had extreme frustrations with the Iraqi government,” Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, told the committee.
In contrast, Mr. al-Abadi is winning Washington’s praise. Mr. McGurk sends out tweets announcing moves by the prime minister.
“PM Abadi reopens Baghdad museum to public for first time in 12 years,” Mr. McGurk tweeted Saturday.
Mr. al-Abadi is also tweeting and tells of amicable meetings with Western leaders. He tweeted last week that he was sending aid to western Iraq and Sunni leaders there, who long complained that Mr. al-Maliki treated them like an enemy.
“He’s doing better than I would have thought given that the country almost collapsed,” James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told The Washington Times. “It was a big struggle to move Maliki out.
“All and all, he’s a better guy in terms of inclusiveness and trying to keep the country together on a nonsectarian basis,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “Whether he’s as decisive as he needs to be — Maliki was decisive — that’s the question we still don’t know.”
Mr. al-Abadi, whom Washington views as a moderate Shiite not beholden to Iran, is trying to play catch-up. There was virtually no response to the Islamic State invasion of western Iraq in January 2014. President Obama referred to the group, also known as ISIL and ISIS, as the “JV” team compared with al Qaeda.
‘New spirit of cooperation in Kabul’
Islamic State militants invaded again in June and gobbled up ground in the north, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
“Maliki was bitterly disappointed, as was I, when we didn’t respond militarily when ISIS swept in and took Fallujah,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “I think Abadi sees us as his partner. But I think, as you keep hearing, they want to see more weapons quicker, and they want to see America be more involved in this fight, partly to balance the Iranians. Abadi is no friend of Iran, nor was Maliki, for that matter.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero knows Iraq’s political and military scene. He completed three combat tours there, the last as commander of all training and equipping of the Iraqi Security Forces.
He visited Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the north in December and said they still are not receiving the weapons they need from Baghdad, which in turn says Washington is too slow to send munitions.
Still, Gen. Barbero is generally pleased with Mr. al-Abadi.
“Abadi has taken very significant steps to show he is not a sectarian,” he said. “He’s a moderate Shia leader, and that has gone a long way. He’s been a huge improvement.”
In Afghanistan, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, the top commander, said the dialogue and policies in Kabul have improved greatly since Mr. Karzai’s rule.
“The Ghani administration offers us an extraordinary opportunity to develop a meaningful strategic partnership that will stabilize Afghanistan and, in turn, offer greater security for the region and the U.S. homeland,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There’s a new spirit of cooperation in Kabul, something we didn’t have before.”
In a report by ABC-7 News in San Francisco, Mr. Ghani said he has more relatives in Northern California than he does in Afghanistan.
“I would not have said this a couple of years ago probably, but I’m excited about the future of Afghanistan,” Gen. Campbell told the TV station. “They have a government that is about the people.”
The report featured a clip of a weekly ceremony in Kabul honoring war dead.
“As you saw, we had a member of the Afghan army out there, and he thanked the coalition, something you did not hear a lot under President Karzai,” Gen. Campbell said.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at email@example.com.
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