KABUL, Afghanistan – 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 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.
Karzai seemed to surprise his audience of students, diplomats and Afghan politicians attending a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of Kabul University when he segued from the value of education to negotiations with the U.S. and NATO. He then finished with a warning to Pakistan against testing Afghanistan's resolve to resist any attempt at turning the Durand Line – the 19th century demarcation between present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan – into an international border.
"We want a civilized relationship with Pakistan, but if any neighbor wants Afghanistan under its shadow ... it is not possible," Karzai said. "If there is any attack or any violation to force Afghanistan to accept the Durand Line, the Afghan nation will never accept it and will never recognize the Durand Line. Impossible."
The uneasy relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan took a turn for the worse last week when each country accused the other of carrying out unprovoked attacks.
Analyst Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, said Karzai's revelation about a U.S. interest in maintaining nine bases is linked to the deteriorating relationship with Pakistan.
Most Afghans want international forces to stay in Afghanistan "for a number of reasons, but first and foremost it is because of Pakistan," Nadery said. "Karzai is trying to test the waters, to see if those sentiments are true or not, if people are going to support him or not. If there is no reaction and people are supporting him, he can go ahead and sign the agreement."
Karzai's government thinks Pakistan harbors Afghan Taliban fighters to give it more sway not just in the border dispute but in other areas of contention. Pakistan denies the allegations and has lost thousands of its soldiers fighting Taliban on its territory.
The Taliban reacted swiftly to Karzai's remarks. Zabiullah Mujahed, the religious movement's spokesman, warned that the longer U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan the longer it will be before peace is achieved.
"The longer the occupiers are here, the longer it will take to find peace," he said in an e-mailed statement. "Afghans want an independent Afghanistan. We will never make any deal on our independence."
The negotiations over a security agreement have been protracted and at times acrimonious. In March, when it appeared that an accord was about to be signed, Karzai suggested that the U.S. and the Taliban were benefiting each other – and even in collusion – to keep U.S. troops in the country, though the U.S. has been fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan for more than a decade. As a result, the U.S. put the agreement on hold.
Another undecided issue involves the future activities of non-U.S. forces in the NATO-led military coalition. Karzai questioned NATO's intentions post-2014 and set out Afghanistan's demands.
"First NATO told us they are all leaving. Now they are coming and saying 'No we are not going. We are staying,'" he said. "We know they are not going."
But before Afghanistan accepts NATO soldiers, Karzai said he wants each of NATO's 28 member countries to negotiate directly with his government about how many soldiers it wants to keep in Afghanistan, where they will be deployed and how it will benefit the country.
Moreover, Karzai said he wants each NATO country to disclose its plan for providing assistance to Afghanistan, including the kind of aid, how many civilians would be involved and – again – how the aid would benefit his nation.
"We want each NATO country to have a direct relationship with us," Karzai said.