Catching U.S. officials slightly off guard, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said yesterday he is seeking a long-term security partnership...

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Catching U.S. officials slightly off guard, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said yesterday he is seeking a long-term security partnership that could keep U.S. troops there indefinitely and make permanent the military relationship that began when U.S. forces invaded his country in 2001.

Karzai made the statement at a news conference with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was reluctant to discuss Afghanistan security guarantees.

“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.”

The prospect of a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan could prove controversial, given the nation’s long history of resisting foreign occupation, notably Soviet Union troops in the 1980s.

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Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic near Afghanistan hosts U.S. forces at Manas airport. The United States also operates another air base in the region, in Uzbekistan.

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-Qaida 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 counternarcotics 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.

About 1,000 angry farmers clashed Tuesday with U.S.-trained anti-drug forces that had arrived to destroy poppy crops in the southern province of Kandahar. Afghanistan was the source of nearly 90 percent of the world’s opium supply last year.

Asked to list Afghanistan’s greatest challenges, Rumsfeld mentioned the threat from both terrorists and drug lords. But he also emphasized the economic and political progress that the nation of 28 million has made over the last three years. The U.S. military is spending about $1 billion a month in Afghanistan.

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.

The defense secretary flew into Afghanistan from Iraq, where he made a surprise trip Tuesday.

After flying to Kabul for talks, Rumsfeld traveled to Pakistan, where he met with President Pervez Musharraf.

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