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Afghan leader seeks long-term military partnership with U.S.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Catching U.S. officials slightly off guard, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking a long-term security partnership that could keep U.S. troops there indefinitely and make permanent the military relationship that began when American forces invaded his country in 2001.
Karzai made the statement Wednesday at a news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was notably reluctant to discuss the Bush administration's level of interest in giving Afghanistan security guarantees.
Pressed several times on this point, Rumsfeld said it was a matter for President Bush to decide. He noted that the United States had pledged to remain a friend to Afghanistan and to help rebuild the country.
But when it came to the question of a permanent military presence here, "We think more in terms of what we're doing rather than the question of military bases and that type of thing," he said.
In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said "discussions are ongoing" with Karzai on future security arrangements. "I don't want to speculate about anything beyond that," McClellan said.
About 20,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan.
It is not clear whether Rumsfeld would favor a long-term military presence in Afghanistan. Some believe he would prefer a more flexible arrangement for U.S. aircraft overflight rights and possibly access to an Afghan air base for occasional training, refueling and other activities.
The Pentagon has already made such arrangements with other Central Asian nations. Rumsfeld generally favors that approach because it is less rigid and less expensive.
At the news conference with Rumsfeld, Karzai appeared eager to talk about his hopes for a permanent relationship with the United States, which he said would be built on economic as well as military pillars.
Karzai said he had consulted many of his country's citizens about "a strategic security relationship," with the United States that could help Afghanistan defend itself and deter foreign aggression.
"The conclusion we have drawn is that the Afghan people want a long-term relationship with the United States," Karzai said. "They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship and most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to enable Afghanistan to defend itself, to continue to prosper."
Karzai said he has discussed this with Bush, but now plans to formalize the request. He did not say when.
The Pentagon is undertaking a review of its military presence worldwide and is expected to pursue a variety of basing and access arrangements in Central Asia. That includes Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic near Afghanistan that currently hosts U.S. forces at Manas airport.
The U.S. also operates another air base in the region, in Uzbekistan. It has on occasion used bases in Pakistan, and has overflight and emergency landing rights in several other nearby countries.
Officers said the troop total soon will drop to about 18,300. That is in addition to about 8,200 troops from NATO countries in Kabul and elsewhere.
The U.S. military is spending about $1 billion a month in Afghanistan, and the end of its mission here -- which includes pursuit of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden -- is nowhere in sight.
Rumsfeld made three stops in Afghanistan on Wednesday, arriving first at Qalat, in southern Afghanistan, after spending Tuesday in Iraq. Rumsfeld also met with U.S. commanders and soldiers at Kandahar air base and then flew to Kabul to meet with Karzai.
He ended his day in Rawalpindi, a city near the Pakistani capital Islamabad, where he met with President Pervez Musharraf.
Rumsfeld indicated his appreciation of Pakistan's "critical cooperation in the global war on terrorism," according to an official Pakistan statement. Rumsfeld "reiterated the commitment of the United States to broadening and deepening its strategic relationship with Pakistan," the statement said.
In Qalat, about 90 miles northeast of Kandahar and about 30 miles from the Pakistan border, Rumsfeld was briefed by commanders of a military group sponsoring civic works projects with local Afghan authorities while pursuing remnants of the Taliban militia that ruled the country before the U.S. invasion.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told Rumsfeld there is progress in training and equipping an Afghan army and national police force, but police capabilities at this point range from "pretty good to extraordinarily bad."
Rumsfeld also was told that Taliban fighters are still infiltrating southern Afghanistan from the Quetta area of Pakistan, and they are maintaining popular support in southern provinces through intimidation.
One purpose of Rumsfeld's trip was to boost the morale of U.S. troops, a growing number of whom have served multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq or have served once in each combat zone.
Rumsfeld told soldiers in Kandahar that Afghans and Americans one day will look back on this as a turning point for the world. "You're earning your place in history," he said.
On the Net:
Defense Department: http://www.defense.gov
CIA factbook on Afghanistan: www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/af.html