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 now 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.
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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 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.
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.
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.
Analyst Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free & 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.”