Karzai Says U.S. Can Keep Afghan Bases After 2014

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan is ready to let the United States and its allies keep military bases here after the end of the NATO combat mission next year, President Hamid Karzai said on Thursday, offering a concrete public signal that foreign troops would remain welcome in the coming years.

The United States and Afghanistan are negotiating a security agreement that would allow American forces to stay here beyond the end of 2014, and Mr. Karzai said the Obama administration has asked for nine bases spread across the country.

"We agree to give them these bases," Mr. Karzai told students during a speech at Kabul University. "We consider our relations with the United States beyond 2014 to be positive for Afghanistan."

The American reaction, though, was far less positive than what one would expect. Officials characterized Mr. Karzai's comments as premature, at best, and said they appeared to reflect the Afghan government's desire for a larger force than the United States is likely willing to commit.

The Obama administration has yet to decide how large a force it would like to keep in Afghanistan, but administration officials have signaled that it is unlikely to total more than 10,000 service members. They said it was more important now to hash out a range of issues, such as whether American troops would continue to have legal immunity in Afghanistan after 2014, than to talk about the specifics of where troops would be based.

The American officials also stressed that no matter the final number of troops, the United States envisions using Afghan bases -- not its own -- to house its forces.

"As President Obama has made clear, we do not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan," the American Embassy said in a statement. Any deal would "address access to, and use of, Afghan facilities by U.S. forces."

Still, the officials seemed relieved that the comments were generally positive, especially in light of more recent statements from Mr. Karzai, such as when he suggested -- weeks after demanding that Special Operations forces leave an entire province -- that both the American-led coalition and the Taliban were working to destabilize the government.

The United States, for its part, has unleashed its share of public salvos. In January, days before Mr. Karzai was to visit Washington, administration officials said that one option after 2014 was simply to leave no American forces in Afghanistan -- a move that some officials worry would leave the government unable to contain the Taliban.

Yet even as rhetoric has heated and cooled, officials in Kabul and Washington have repeatedly stressed that both sides want a deal, and a post-2014 troop presence, even if no one can yet say what it would look like.

Mr. Karzai offered a glimpse of his thinking in his speech on Thursday at Kabul University, saying he was ready to agree to American bases in Kabul and Kandahar, the country's two biggest cities, and at Bagram, north of Kabul, the current site of one of the largest coalition bases in Afghanistan.

He also said the United States wanted two bases in Herat Province, which borders Iran, and others in the north, east and south of Afghanistan.

At the same time, Mr. Karzai said he wanted more clarity from Western countries and from NATO as a whole about what they planned to contribute to Afghanistan in the years after 2014.

So far, Germany, which currently has more than 4,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, is the only major NATO member to have made a firm offer of troops after 2014. It said last month that it was prepared to keep 600 to 800 soldiers here until 2017 to train Afghan forces.

"At first, they said that they are all leaving in 2014, and now every one of them is coming one by one and saying, 'We are not leaving,' " Mr. Karzai said.

"We know that they are not leaving, and so we are insisting that we have our own words with them," he said, adding that he wanted an overall agreement with NATO in addition to any agreements with individual countries.

He also laid out conditions for the United States and its allies. "America should strengthen their efforts to bring peace, fundamentally strengthen the security forces of Afghanistan, should give us strong support in strengthening the economy of Afghanistan, and rebuild our economic foundations, such as dams, electricity, roads," he said.

The conditions, said American and NATO officials in Kabul, were basically what the West has been trying to accomplish through billions in development aid over the past 12 years.

That aid would continue, although the amounts given were likely to be reduced over time, officials said. And the Afghan government would have to live up to its commitments to battle corruption and run a more open government for the aid to keep flowing.

Mr. Karzai did not address those issues in his speech. But he did highlight financial pledges he recently secured on a trip to Europe. He said Finland, where he signed a partnership deal, had agreed to provide $30 million in aid each year, though he did not say for how long.

Denmark, meanwhile, had agreed to give Afghanistan $100 million over the coming five years and more aid in the 10 years after that, he said.

Contributors & locations: Sharifullah Sahak in Kabul

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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