There are increasingly strong indications that the United States and Afghanistan are considering a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The hints have come from both sides. The latest discussion on the subject came when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Afghanistan last week. In a joint press conference with Secretary Rumsfeld, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai revealed that he is working on a request from Washington to establish a strategic military partnership with the United States that would "include a permanent U.S. military presence" in Afghanistan. However, Secretary Rumsfeld did address the issue directly, saying only: "We think in terms of what we are doing rather than the question of military bases." (Pak Tribune, April 15).
According to reports, the permanent basing idea was originally discussed when Secretary Rumsfeld visited Kabul in December of last year. It was also discussed with a Congressional delegation in February 2005, when Arizona Senator John McCain (R-AZ) visited Kabul. McCain and four other U.S. Senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) met with President Karzai. Senator McCain called for a "long-term strategic partnership…that must endure for many, many years." In response to a question about the nature of this partnership, Senator McCain mentioned the need for "permanent joint military bases." Senator Clinton did not mention the idea of bases explicitly, but expressed hope that "friendship and partnership" will expand as it would "strongly" be in both countries' interests.
Interestingly, in late February British Foreign Minister Jack Straw also mentioned his country's interest in exploring the possibility of having a "strategic partnership" with Afghanistan (AP, February 22).
Another indication of U.S. desires came from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who held talks with President Karzai during her own trip to the region in mid-March. In her remarks in Kabul, Rice noted, "The United States is a long-term partner" to Afghanistan. When specifically asked about permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, Rice replied, "We have not yet determined what we would do in terms of our presence here, but we are committed to a long-term relationship." She also emphasized that the war in Iraq would not distract Washington from "finishing the job in Afghanistan" (Radio Free Europe, March 18).
Speaking in London recently, Afghanistan Defense Minister General Rahim Wardak spoke of his country's desire for "enduring arrangements" with the United States and other countries. Addressing a gathering of military analysts, General Wardak admitted that at the moment this desire is just a "concept and a wish." He said there are common interests, common problems, and common objectives and, therefore, common solutions should be found. This concerted effort, he said, is possible if there is "some sort of enduring arrangement" (RFE/RL, April 6).
Although U.S. and Afghan sources use General Wardak's language of a "concept and a wish," some reports mention the ongoing construction of a large base in Herat that could be used by NATO forces (Asia Times Online, February 9). There is another report that suggests that the United States is planning as many as nine bases in different provinces of Afghanistan, including Helmand, Herat, Nimrouz, Balkh, Khost, and Paktia (Asia Times Online, March 30).
There seems to be wide support for some kind of long-term arrangement for a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. During his state visit to India in February 2005, President Karzai clearly explained that if "the U.S. leaves, we go back to chaos." He said the U.S. presence is essential for Afghanistan's stability (India Today, February 28).
Mr. Karzai also maintains that during the last three years he has had discussions with people from all walks of life, both in the capital and the provinces, who want "a longer-term relationship with the United States" (Embassy of Afghanistan Newsletter, April 2005).
There are reports that other prominent Afghans also are in favor of long-term arrangements that would keep U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, they emphasize that the idea should be approved by the Afghan parliament as stipulated in the new Afghanistan constitution. Sayed Ahmad Gailani, a former moderate leader of the mujahideen, told a local news agency said he hoped an "American presence would help Afghanistan overcome its myriad problems" (Pajwok Afghan News, April 13). A recent article in Outlook Afghanistan criticized General Wardak's statement about the U.S. military presence as being "premature" and emphasized that this issue should only be addressed by the new parliament that is scheduled to be elected in September (Outlook Afghanistan, April 9).
Whatever the outcome of the talks or possible debate in the coming parliament in Afghanistan, the issue of permanent bases -- U.S., NATO, or both -- would make some neighbors of Afghanistan such Iran and China nervous. At the same time, the new arrangement will be a force to stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, both domestic and foreign.