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Afghans Cautious On U.S. Military Bases

During a meeting in Washington on 23 May, U.S. President George W. Bush and visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a memorandum of understanding towards establishing a "strategic partnership" between Washington and Kabul. At a joint news conference in the White House the same day, Karzai stated that the arrangement signed with Bush would "enable Afghanistan to stand on its own feet." Bush said that the strategic partnership signed with Karzai "establishes regular high-level exchanges on political, security and economic interests" and consultations with Afghanistan "if it perceives its territorial integrity, independence or security is at risk." The text of the "Joint Declaration of the United States-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership" released by the White House on 23 May specifies if such a risk is determined by Kabul to exist, the Afghanistan and the United States will take "appropriate measures" to address it.

The details of this agreement call for the U.S. to have access to military facilities in Afghanistan. The declaration states that U.S. military forces operating in Afghanistan will continue to have access to Bagram Air Base north of Kabul and to "facilities at other locations as may be mutually determined." However, the agreement fails to specify whether this strategic partnership will allow a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, something which has been at the center of debate between Washington and Kabul.(See also: 'Strategic Partnership' Seen As Move Toward De Facto Rights For U.S. Bases)

The issue of potentially establishing permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan was first raised publicly by Republican U.S. Senator John McCain during a visit to Kabul in February 2005. McCain told reporters that in order to secure the vital interests of the United States and support Afghanistan, his country needs to have a partnership with Kabul which he said should comprise "economic assistance, technical assistance, and military partnership" -- something, McCain added, that should, in his "personal view," include "joint military permanent bases." Shortly after his news conference, McCain's office released a statement on 22 February clarifying that while the senator hoped for a long-term commitment from the United States towards Afghanistan, "he did not mean to imply that [such a commitment] would necessarily require permanent U.S. military bases" in that country.

Karzai, while not discussing the issue of permanent U.S. bases directly, addressed the question of a strategic relationship with Washington during a visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Kabul on 13 April. Karzai told reporters that in order to safeguard Afghanistan's independence and ensure that the country did not turn once more "into a battlefield and a war-torn country," he has "demanded permanent, strong and sustained relations" with the United States.

Karzai added his decision to ask for such a strategic partnership was in line with his "manifesto" before the October presidential elections and after consultations with advisers "over the past three years."

Pressed by a reporter to elaborate on whether the strategic relationship he envisaged with the United States included the basing of U.S. military in Afghanistan, Karzai said, "We are not discussing just military bases. We are talking about comprehensive relations to guarantee that Afghanistan will not be destroyed again and to help Afghanistan become powerful and capable of standing on its own feet."
One Afghan weekly said that "the word ‘permanent’ never has positive implications for Afghanistan."

At the time, Rumsfeld said that while comprehensive relations, including in the military sphere, would continue between his country and Afghanistan, the establishment of permanent military bases in Afghanistan is a decision that only the U.S. president has authority over.

Afghan Views And Reactions

Before embarking earlier in May on a visit to Europe that preceded his trip to the United States, Karzai hastily invited close to a thousand Afghan representatives to a meeting to discuss his proposal for a strategic partnership with the United States.

The results of the 5 May meeting, which included many members of the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) that approved Afghanistan's constitution in January 2004, remain ambiguous.

Whereas Karzai spokesman Jawed Ludin said that the representatives were "on the whole…very positive" in their response to Karzai's proposal, some of the participants reacted less favorably.

Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, the leader of the National Understanding Front -- a newly-formed opposition block -- and the second-place finisher behind Karzai in the presidential elections, told "Kabul Weekly" on 18 May that he thought the "opinion of the representatives...were against the expectations of President Karzai." Qanuni, echoing sentiments widely held by Afghan media outlets since Karzai's announcement of the strategic partnership proposal in April, said that such a relationship would be "beneficial for both countries." However, Qanuni added that the "issue of U.S. bases in Afghanistan" was "something new." He did not reject the idea of bases, however. Instead, in line with the opinions of many in Afghanistan, he said that such a decision "can only be made by [the Afghan] parliament," which is scheduled to be elected in September.

Possible Foreign Opposition To U.S. Bases

The bases issue entered the headlines together with this month's student demonstrations in several Afghan cities. Students were ostensibly angered by a report in the U.S.-based "Newsweek" magazine that some interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba had desecrated the Koran -- a report later retracted by the magazine. But some of the students' slogans also rejected Karzai's military-base plans.

Following these deadly demonstrations, analysts raised the issue of whether some of Afghanistan’s neighbors were manipulating public opinion in Afghanistan in an attempt to prevent the development of a long-term U.S.-Afghan partnership (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 17 May 2005).

In an interview broadcast on 14 May on Afghanistan Television, President Karzai, without naming any particular country, stated that the demonstrations were instigated from abroad in order to -- among other things -- stop his policy of seeking to establish a partnership with the United States.

Kabul's main pro-government daily, "Anis," on 17 May alleged Iranian involvement in the demonstrations. The paper argued that because the United States is engaged in "a psychological battle" against Iran, Tehran is trying to arouse anti-U.S. sentiments among the Afghans and drive the United States out of Afghanistan.

Whether Iran had a direct hand in the recent demonstrations is something that may never be proven. But the uneasiness of Afghanistan's neighbors regarding such a possibility has been discussed by the Afghan media and politicians. Qanuni, for example, while acknowledging the U.S. bases in Afghanistan would "definitely create problems in the region," said that Afghans should be thinking "about their own country's interests."

Issues Remain Before September Elections

The mandate set by the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which has been used as the guideline for Afghanistan's transitional period, is set to end with the parliamentary elections in September. The new strategic partnership between Washington and Kabul means the U.S. forces will maintain a presence in Afghanistan even after the vote -- something which Afghan media say leaves a number of questions to be resolved by Karzai before they are debated by parliament.

As the independent "Kabul Weekly" recently commented, the total duration of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has yet to be discussed. According to the weekly, it would be better to "think in terms of years, not decades or an indefinite period of time." In an earlier commentary, the weekly had written that "the word ‘permanent’ never has positive implications for Afghanistan."

Another issue discussed by the Afghan media, which Karzai needs to ponder before submitting a proposal to the Afghan parliament, are the principals guiding the presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil.

The text of the joint declaration states that "U.S. and Coalition forces are to continue to have the freedom of action required to conduct appropriate military operations based on consultations and pre-agreed procedures."

Legitimacy and responsibility are two other factors that Karzai will be faced with if he invites the United States to base its military in Afghanistan on a more permanent basis. The Mazar-e Sharif-based "Baztab" daily in April commented that if the U.S. were to establish bases in Afghanistan, people would "lose confidence" in the ability of the Karzai government to provide security on its own. Similar sentiments were echoed by Sakhi Monir, the editor in chief of the pro-Karzai "Anis," who said that during his election campaign Karzai promised to bring peace and security to Afghanistan in five years. The "strategic partnership" is an indication of a "new political thesis" for the Afghan president, Monir asserted, adding that Afghans voted for Karzai "with the very idea that he will be in a position to bring about peace and stability."

Publications such as the independent Kabul weekly "Wantandar," which supports the idea of a strategic partnership between Afghanistan and the United States, suggested in a 20 April commentary that such an arrangement would "constitute a one-way relationship, as Afghanistan will be constantly asking for assistance and the USA will have to grant it."

As Karzai left Washington after placing his signature on the joint declaration for a strategic partnership with the United States, many questions remain unanswered. If the Afghan president fails to deal with these questions diligently and transparently, it may fuel the desires of his domestic opponents and any potential foreign backers to undermine his government. Karzai needs the support of the majority of the Afghan people, something he apparently has. But in order to establish a clear mandate, there needs to be more public participation in a decision that is so vital for Afghanistan's future.