KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has irked Washington with his frequent criticism of American military operations in his country, said Thursday that his government is now ready to let the U.S. have nine bases across Afghanistan after most foreign troops withdraw in 2014.
A border spat with Pakistan and a desire to test public opinion led Karzai to break months of public silence on this issue, according to Afghan analysts. They said Karzai is concerned that Pakistan is using the Taliban to give it greater leverage, and that he wants to find out if Afghans, tired of 12 years of war, will support that size of a U.S. military footprint.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the U.S. "does not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan." The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 would be "only at the request of the Afghan government," Carney said.
Carney wouldn't say whether the U.S. was perhaps seeking a temporary presence on nine bases. An American defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media, said earlier that he had not heard the number nine mentioned previously.
But Karzai said that's how many bases the Americans had requested.
"We are giving the bases, nine bases they want from Afghanistan — in all of Afghanistan," he said.
Karzai said the U.S. wants bases in Kabul; Bagram Air Field, north of the capital; Mazar-e-Sharif in the north; Jalalabad and Gardez near the eastern border with Pakistan; Kandahar and Helmand provinces, which are Taliban strongholds in the south; and Shindand and Herat in western Afghanistan.
In return, Afghanistan wants a U.S. commitment to boost Afghan security, strengthen its armed forces and provide long-term economic development assistance.
"It is our condition that they bring security and bring it quickly and strengthen the Afghan forces and the economy," he said. "When they (the Americans) do this, we are ready to sign" a partnership agreement.
The Pentagon has said very little about how and where it would position the troops it keeps in Afghanistan after the international military coalition ends its combat mission in December 2014, mainly because the arrangements must be negotiated with the Afghan government. President Barack Obama has not yet announced how many troops he wants to keep in the country beyond 2014, but officials have said it may be in the range of 10,000.
About 66,000 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 in 2010. Germany is the only country to commit its troops after 2014, promising 800.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top American commander in Kabul, said recently that he hopes the U.S. and its NATO partners can be partnered with Afghan forces after 2014 in "the four corners" of the country, as well as in Kabul. His comment suggested that the U.S. would have military advisers on at least five bases. Washington also wants to keep some number of special operations forces in the country, and they also would require bases, although the number has never been discussed publicly.
As of May, there were 180 coalition bases in Afghanistan, down from a high of more than 425. The bulk of those are U.S. bases. Altogether, the U.S. and its allies had about 800 installations across Afghanistan in October 2011, including small combat outposts and checkpoints. That number has dropped to about 167.
U.S. leaders have repeatedly said that the U.S. does not want to keep permanent bases in Afghanistan, but would want access to Afghan bases based on the number of American troops that remain in the country after 2014.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the talks told The Associated Press earlier that the U.S. and Karzai are at odds over his request that the United States guarantee that it would side with Afghanistan if neighboring Pakistan poses a threat. So far, the U.S. is refusing, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
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