KABUL - Afghanistan faces a difficult spring in terms of security as the so-called ‘fighting season’ with the Taliban begins, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Saturday.

‘The winter has been extraordinarily difficult. And barring major breakthroughs in the region, spring will be difficult,’ he told a press briefing at the presidential palace several hours before leaving on a four-day official visit to the United States.

Ghani, who came to power in September, said he had not asked for any specific aid from the United States or any changes to planned troop withdrawals. ‘What I'll be explaining to the Congress of the United States is what we're doing. What we're underlining is both the nature of the threat and what we're doing with the existing resources and capabilities,’ he said.

‘A partnership is about appreciation of conditions. You cannot just simply request assistance,’ the president added. The United States was due to reduce its 10,000 troops to 5,500 by December, but that number is expected to be reassessed. The Afghan government has been ‘actively engaging’ with its neighbours in the region over the past few weeks ‘from Azerbaijan to India’ to create conditions for discussions with the Taliban, Ghani said.

‘We have not had face-to-face discussions, we're preparing the conditions for those,’ he added. Diplomatic efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table have gained pace recently, even as security forces have launched offensives against the insurgent group without NATO assistance for the first time since 2002.

For their part, the Taliban continue to impose their own tough conditions, including the absence of any foreign troops on Afghan soil, as a precondition to negotiations. Ghani and his Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah will have the opportunity on their US visit to discuss the emergence of the Islamic State group (IS).

Ghani said IS ‘swallows its competitors’.  ‘If you compare Al Qaeda and Daesh, it's like going from Windows 1 to Windows 5,’ he said, referring to IS by an alternative name. ‘These groups do not fit with the classic insurgency.’

The Middle East-based group has not formally confirmed it is operating out of Afghanistan, though Pakistani and Afghan commanders have pledged their allegiance to the outfit in recent months. According to Ghani, Pakistan's military operations in Waziristan and Khyber ‘are pushing a major series of global terrorist networks onto us’.  But he stressed he considers neighbouring Pakistan a key partner in the peace process, saying success depends on ‘an enduring peace’ with Islamabad. In the United States, Ghani said he expects to field questions about the country's finances. ‘The question we will be asked is about fiscal sustainability. Will we be able to afford our own forces?’ the president said.

‘This is precisely why we're examining the system of expenditure - the efficiency, the effectiveness, the transparency from top to bottom.’ The trip is also seen as an important step toward mending relations between the United States and Afghanistan, which deteriorated towards the end of former president Hamid Karzai's ten-year rule. Moreover, Afghanistan's intelligence agency said on Saturday it had foiled an attempt to assassinate Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum in the northerly Jawzjan province.

The assassination was to have been carried out by a suicide bomber who had hidden a bomb on the back of his horse as he attended a game of buzkashi, a national sport. "The suicide bomber planned to detonate it during a buzkashi match," the statement by the spy agency said.

The powerful Uzbek leader is known as a fan of the sport, in which players on horseback try to drag the carcass of a calf or goat into a goal. During last year's election campaign, Dostum was photographed watching games from a throne-like sofa placed on the back of a pick-up truck, in a show of his wealth and influence.

This week, Dostum's office issued a statement denying that he felt marginalised by other members of the national unity government, as the New York Times had reported. The newspaper said the former warlord had been close to tears after one particularly difficult meeting.

The statement said this did not fit Dostum's personality and nature.