Prague, 23 February (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Senator John McCain's call for permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan came after talks in Kabul on 22 February in which he congratulated Afghan President Hamid Karzai on progress toward democracy.
"We also want to declare our commitment, and that of the [American] people we represent, to the long-term strategic partnership that we believe must endure for many, many years," McCain said. "Not only for the good of the Afghan people but also for the good of the American people, because of the long-term security interests that we have in the region."
McCain, a leading senator in the Republican Party, specifically mentioned "permanent bases" after being asked by a reporter to clarify what he meant by a "long-term strategic" partnership: "We mean by that economic assistance, technical assistance, military partnership -- including, and this is a personal view, joint military permanent bases."
Jawed Ludin, a spokesman for Karzai, confirmed on 23 February that both Washington and Kabul are eager for their ties to evolve into a long-term strategic partnership. But Ludin says Karzai can not agree to a permanent U.S. military presence without approval from parliament. And the Afghan parliament will not be created until after elections are held later this year.
"You could, if you were the Iranians, make a very strong case to say, 'This is America trying to hedge in Iran. They've got bases in Iraq. They have bases in Afghanistan. They have a relationship with Pakistan. They have ships in the Gulf. They are trying to encircle Iran.' I think America has to be very careful before it does that."
The main logistical center for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan is the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul -- known by U.S. military forces as "BAF." Although commonly referred to in media reports as " Bagram Air Base," U.S. military officials say that term is a misnomer because Bagram is not considered a full-fledged "air base."
Indeed, only a small portion of Bagram's vast acreage has been put to use by the U.S.-led coalition. That's because the air field had, for years, been on the front lines between warring factions -- including the Taliban and the former Northern Alliance. That left much of the land within the massive compound littered with mines and other unexploded ordnance.
U.S. military officials have told RFE/RL that work to clear the ordnance from Bagram, which has been underway for more than a year, is aimed at eventually expanding the facility into a full-fledged regional air base.
The clearance operations also come as U.S. and NATO forces decrease their presence at Soviet-era military bases in neighboring Central Asian countries like Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan and Qarshi Khanabad in Uzbekistan.
Pentagon officials have describe the U.S. presence in those former Soviet republics as "open-ended." They note that Washington has never asked for permanent basing rights in those countries.
Ian Kemp, an independent defense analyst based in London, says that in addition to Bagram, McCain also is probably referring to smaller logistical centers in Afghanistan that are used by U.S.-led coalition forces. "The American strategic concept has changed significantly in recent years -- moving away from the large bases which characterized the Cold War," Kemp said. "[The Pentagon is] trying to establish a network of smaller bases where the United States has put some infrastructure in place so that these bases can be used to conduct exercises -- particularly joint training with local troops -- and then can be used for the basis of broader deployment should that become necessary. Certainly I think Senator McCain's comments about establishing [permanent] bases in Afghanistan really should be seen in this context."
Other key U.S.-run logistical centers in Afghanistan include Kandahar Air Field, or "KAF," in southern Afghanistan and the Shindand Air Field in the western province of Herat. Shindand is located about 100 kilometers from the border with Iran.
Paul Beaver, an independent defense analyst based in London, says the proximity of Shindand to Iran could give Tehran cause for concern -- particularly considering McCain's remark that permanent U.S. bases should be part of a "regional" security network. "It sits right next to Iran," Beaver said. "You could, if you were the Iranians, make a very strong case to say, 'This is America trying to hedge in Iran. They've got bases in Iraq. They have bases in Afghanistan. They have a relationship with Pakistan. They have ships in the Gulf. They are trying to encircle Iran.' I think America has to be very careful before it does that."
McCain's call for permanent bases also could be seen as a reference to the even smaller facilities for U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in eastern, southern and western Afghanistan.
The PRTs were created with the stated aim of helping Afghans with infrastructure projects such as the construction of roads, bridges, power plants, schools and water wells.
NATO-led PRTs in northern Afghanistan have limited their work strictly to such reconstruction projects.
But in areas where U.S. forces continue to battle the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, some U.S.-led PRTs serve a dual function that also includes what the U.S. military calls a "forward operations base."
That means they are sometimes used to deploy and supply military operations by U.S. Special Forces and specially-trained mountain infantry -- as well as serving as a tactical operations center and communications hub for commanders.