KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai said Wednesday that he was seeking a long-term security arrangement with the United States, but he declined to say whether it would include the establishment of permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Karzai said the Afghan people strongly favor such an agreement.
“They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship, and most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to help Afghanistan defend itself,” said Karzai, who won his nation’s first democratic presidential elections in October.
Rumsfeld, who was in Afghanistan for a one-day visit, sidestepped the question of permanent bases.
“That is not a matter for the Department of Defense,” he said. “That is a matter for the president of the United States and the president of Afghanistan to discuss in an orderly way.”
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon was focused on determining what further assistance the United States can offer the war-ravaged nation.
“It may be training, it may be equipping, it may be various other types of assistance,” he said.
The prospect of a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan could prove controversial, given the nation’s long history of resisting foreign occupation. Afghan officials have said such a move would need the approval of parliament, due to be elected in September.
Three years after U.S. led-forces ousted the extremist Taliban regime, an 18,500-strong international coalition – dominated by 17,000 U.S. troops – continues to fight remnants of the Islamic militia and al Qaeda terrorists in rural areas. The U.S. military has also recently taken on a larger role in combating the burgeoning opium trade by providing intelligence, air transport and training to Afghan counter-narcotics forces.
In recent weeks, Taliban insurgents have killed several local Afghan officials in the south and mounted a series of ambushes on U.S. and Afghan soldiers. Taliban fighters may also have been responsible for small-scale bombings in several cities, including Kabul, and Sunday’s attempted kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in the capital.
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