First official visit: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Washington as U.S.-Afghan relationship evolves

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CAMP DAVID (CNN) — Highlighting significant improvements in the U.S.-Afghan relationship since Afghanistan’s new unity government took office, the Obama administration announced several new initiatives to support their Afghan partners in the coming years.

The announcements were made Monday by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at a press conference following a full day of meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah.

“Today’s productive meetings underscore both the enduring nature of the U.S.-Afghan friendship and the extent to which we have grown even closer after 14 years of shared sacrifice,” said Kerry.

The governments have also grown closer because of the departure from office of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a perennial thorn in the side of the Obama administration.

Now, at the Ghani government’s request, the U.S. will be directing $800 million in development aid to an incentives program, called the New Development Partnership — whereby assistance to the Afghan government will be pegged to the achievement of specific milestones.

“This initiative reflects the strategic importance of the U.S.-Afghan relationship and it recognizes a new era of cooperation between our governments,” Kerry said, announcing the program.

“This is a framework that will incentivize the Afghan public and Afghan government to put our house in order, to be able to spend money,” said Ghani. “On budget and in terms of priorities we must commit to reforms that our people want and desire.”

The U.S. will also be seeking money from Congress to sustain the Afghan National Security Force at its current, post-surge level with 352,000 troops.

“This is a major statement of support,” Ghani said of the announcement. “Our armed forces and our security forces are going to greet this with enormous welcome because it gives them that assurance that the resolute support mission is continuing and that we are able to focus on our key priorities.”

Furthermore, the two countries will be re-launching two ministerial-level consultative forums, the Bilateral Commission and the Security Consultative Forum.

The Bilateral Commission was initially launched as part of the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership and was supposed to meet twice a year, but it has not been held since May of 2013.

The Security Consultative Forum was last held in 2012.

Speaking about the latter forum at Monday’s press conference, Carter said it would “open the door to new opportunities — new opportunities to strengthen our enduring partnership.”

Lastly, the officials announced the U.S. will be providing technical assistance to the Afghan Ministry of Finance.

“I can assure you that we have a sense of urgency” on economic issues,” Ghani told reporters at the press conference.

Despite these announcements, one major point of discussion remains unresolved: whether the U.S. will consider adjusting its troop withdrawal time line, as Ghani has requested.

Currently, there are 9,800 U.S. troops providing training and support in Afghanistan, as well as 3,000 troops from other NATO countries. The Obama administration plans to reduce that number to about 5,500 by the end of this year before withdrawing completely by the end of 2016.

But Ghani has made clear to Obama in recent conversations that such a time line could jeopardize the security situation on the ground as Afghan forces continue to fight back the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“Those discussions remain ongoing,” said Kerry, “and those will really be the focus of the discussions tomorrow with President Obama in the White House.”

Ghani was joined at Camp David and at the press conference by Afghanistan’s CEO Abdullah.

Ghani and Abdullah formed a unity government following a contentious election last year, and while they have struggled to share authority under the new system, the two presented a united front on Monday, something Kerry was quick to note.

“A lot of people felt that because of the hard fought election and the nature of the presidential contest that they would never come together and that Afghanistan would literally split wide open as a result,” said Kerry. “Close up that is not what I saw.”

“I saw two men who understood very clearly what the stakes were for their country,” he added. “Both of whom were determined to validate what was in fact a remarkable democratic process. Both of who were determined to do what was right.”

The four leaders at Monday’s press conference agreed on another point as well: That the bond between the U.S. and Afghanistan is strong, and the partnership will continue into the foreseeable future.

“This is a foundational relationship,” said Ghani, “and we’re very proud that this relationship will be transformed into an enduring relationship.”

Ghani and Abdullah will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday, where the issue of U.S. troop withdrawal is expected to play out as a major point of discussion.

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