Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani Addresses Congress

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani gave an hour-long address to Congress on Wednesday, in which he mused that his country’s longstanding position as the graveyard of empires is quite exhausting to the Afghan people.

Having established their reputation as fierce, stubborn fighters, they would really like to move on to a more productive future. “‘Ordinary’ is what has escaped us, and what we’d really like is to lead totally ordinary lives,” he said.

The soft-spoken Afghan president was humble, gracious, and extremely likable, slipping a few witticisms and jovial anecdotes into a serious address about major issues facing his nation, America, Muslims, and the world. He is also a shrewd student of American politics, cheerfully willing to use the language his congressional audience wanted to hear and well aware of the issues they want the new Afghan administration to address.  The purest distillation of his style and political skill was the anecdote he told about Afghan fathers instructing their daughters in “the ancient art of skateboarding” — a lovely image for Ghani’s drive toward modernity, and maternity. He understands the value of smiles from the leader of a country known for blood and tears. He knows Americans are keenly interested in women’s rights.

Women’s rights occupied the largest share of Ghani’s remarks — an issue he returned to several times as a way to acknowledge Afghanistan’s past, express his understanding of Islam’s political and cultural problems, and emphasize how modern and Western he imagines his nation’s future to be. He described voting rights for women as an indicator of political maturity, jobs, and entrepreneurial opportunity for women as integral to economic maturity, and education for women as both a vital economic investment and a signal of cultural maturity.

Ghani noted mournfully that on the morning of September 11, 2001, in the depths of Taliban rule, there were no girls enrolled in Afghan schools at all.  He made a crack about women suffering under “aberrant cultures” that is not going to sit well with some Muslim leaders who are not Taliban primitives.  Neither will his declaration of support for the possibility of a female Afghan president in the near future.

Ghani was effusive in his thanks to American troops, taxpayers, and political leaders for the sacrifices made in support of freedom for his people, denouncing the tactics used against brave American soldiers — from hidden bombs to “green on blue” attacks by turncoat Afghan troops — as “cowardly acts of terror.” He also praised aid workers and non-governmental organizations for the work done on behalf of Afghanistan’s suffering people, noting remarkable gains in his people’s health, from increased lifespans to reduced maternal mortality rates. He looked forward to a day when Americans might come as tourists to visit the country where “the war that defeated terror” was fought. He said he was pleased with the smooth transition of military responsibilities from American troops to Afghan security forces, and promised his troops were up to the job.

One of the current Afghan president’s top issues is cracking down on the epic level of corruption in his government, a measure he viewed as crucial to bringing free-market prosperity and financial independence to Afghanistan. He promised a new emphasis on the rule of law, justice, economic growth, and self-reliance, with the goal of achieving full independence within the current decade. “We’re not going to be the Lazy Uncle Joe,” Ghani promised, an applause line accompanied by what looked suspiciously like House Speaker John Boehner nudging Vice President Joe Biden behind him.

Naturally, Ghani addressed the global war on terror and the rise of ISIS – although, with his characteristic sense for employing preferred American rhetoric, he referred to the former as the struggle against extremism, and consistently used the name “Daesh” for ISIS. He said he was troubled by Daesh establishing a foothold in Afghanistan — a development American officials have only recently been willing to discuss — and was well aware that the Taliban still festers in protected Pakistani tribal lands. He also criticized the use of “non-state actors” as violent terrorist instruments to impose “short-sighted policies,” which sounds an awful lot like what Iran has been up to for the past few decades.

Ghani was willing to criticize the Muslim world in general and call for stronger resistance to violent extremism by moderates, an effort in which he wishes to take a leading role.  “Hatred must be challenged and overcome from within the religion of Islam,” he declared.  “Silence is not acceptable.”

The Afghan president was endearingly humble about the difficulty of realizing the bright future of peace and opportunity he envisioned, in partnership with America and her allies.  “Ladies and gentleman, I’m not here to tell you a story about the overnight transformation of my country. You are too wise for such stories,” he said, unquestionably winning the prize for the nicest thing anyone has said to the U.S. Congress this week, and possibly this year. Doubtless Ghani’s speech will be picked apart for variance between his aspirations and reality back in Kabul, but it’s important to have the right aspirations, and present them in an inspirational way.  He did very well on both counts.

Watch his full speech to Congress here.