When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visits the White House on Tuesday, it will highlight how much U.S. relations with Kabul have improved during his six months in office. The Obama administration has already indicated that it will heed Ghani's request to slow the withdrawal of American forces, keeping thousands more troops in Afghanistan in 2016 than had been planned.
Given the rancorous end to President Hamid Karzai's decade-plus tenure, U.S.-Afghan ties were bound to improve with a change in leadership. A more surprising development has been Ghani's outreach to the other key player in the Afghan conflict: the Taliban.
Ghani is on the cusp of getting Taliban insurgents to enter peace talks for the first time, helped by a combination of domestic and international factors that may push Kabul and the Taliban to the table, not the least of which is Ghani's fresh approach.
After his victory in an election tainted by fraud allegations, the U.S.-educated former finance minister announced an ambitious agenda of political and economic reforms. But as that agenda has stalled, or perhaps because he sees ending the war as the only way to rescue Afghanistan's economy, Ghani has made peace with the Taliban his top priority.
He has taken the issue away from the failed High Peace Council, which the Karzai government established to handle outreach to the Taliban and which the insurgents hated (one council leader was assassinated in his home). He has met personally with rival political parties, civil society groups and veterans of the anti-Soviet resistance of decades ago to solicit suggestions on a peace process.
The message to the Taliban is that unlike Karzai, who referred to the insurgents as "brothers" but also presided over a war that killed thousands of them, Ghani is serious about bringing them into his government.
"Ashraf Ghani's rhetoric is important. It showed a different approach than that of Karzai," said Abdul Salam Rocketi, a former Taliban military commander. "Everything Ghani has said has been centered around peace."
Afghan officials believe Taliban leaders have been ready to negotiate since the group opened a political office in Qatar in 2013 to facilitate talks. A truce would give the insurgents some of the political power they have coveted since their ouster in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and would satisfy U.S. officials who long ago recognized that the conflict could end only at the negotiating table.
As a show of good faith, Ghani's representatives have indicated they would allow the Taliban to have some say in the logistics of the negotiations. One official with knowledge of the matter said the government would let the Taliban suggest a location for the first round of talks; a second round would be held in Afghanistan and a third in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a symbolic overture to the Taliban, who say they have been fighting a holy war against U.S.-led foreign forces.
Another key change has been in neighboring Pakistan, traditionally an obstacle to peace because of its security establishment's ties to Taliban leaders based in that country's tribal belt. U.S. and Afghan officials say they believe Pakistan, reeling from a massacre in December at an army-run school in Peshawar by domestic insurgents allied with the Afghan Taliban, finally views peace in Afghanistan as good for its own stability and will use its leverage with the group to encourage negotiations.
Animosity between the neighboring nations has eased as Ghani sent troops to train in Pakistan and launched attacks against anti-Pakistan militants who crossed into Afghan territory. Ghani has found rapport with Gen. Raheel Sharif, Pakistan's powerful army chief, who has reportedly given assurances that he can bring all Taliban factions into negotiations.
One Pakistani official who met recently with Ghani quoted the Afghan leader as saying, "I trust Gen. Raheel, and he will fulfill his commitments."
"With Ghani, Pakistani leaders see a straight shooter who's willing to make concessions to Pakistan for peace and stability in his own country," said Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Ghani has also courted Pakistani allies Saudi Arabia and China, the latter increasingly worried about Uighur militants using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a haven. Playing the unfamiliar role of mediator in a foreign conflict, Beijing has sent envoys to meet with Taliban representatives to encourage talks, and Ghani has reciprocated by handing over to China suspected Uighur militants captured in Afghanistan.
The U.S. drawdown has created an opening for China to project its influence, Rafiq said.
"Intervening now in Afghanistan allows China to contribute to Afghan stability on its own terms, as an equal to the United States, not as a force contributing to a long-term U.S. occupation," he said.
Still, skeptics point out, no dates for talks have been set and hurdles are plentiful.
Many Afghans, including Karzai, have criticized Ghani for trusting Pakistan after it reneged on pledges to support a peace process.
The Taliban is divided over whether to engage in talks or keep fighting, particularly if President Obama sticks to his deadline of pulling out all U.S. troops by the end of 2016.
With conflict intensifying in the warmer months, some observers expect the insurgents to test Afghan forces to see how they respond with less U.S. military support.
"Significant movement on the peace process is unlikely before the next fighting season," Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, told an audience in New Delhi recently. "Afghanistan needs to be preparing for talks but also for the intensive battle that may be coming their way."
Having staked his hard-won presidency on the peace bid, analysts say, Ghani needs to deliver tangible results soon, particularly from Pakistan, or this rare moment of optimism will pass.
"If Ghani's olive branch leads to a genuine peace process that ends successfully, his move will be perceived as a brilliant act of statesmanship," said Andrew Wilder, vice president of South and Central Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace. "However, if it fails, he risks looking very naive."
Times staff writer Bengali reported from New Delhi and special correspondent Latifi from Kabul. Special correspondents Aoun Sahi in Islamabad and Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.