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Afghanistan likely to have permanent US military

Financial Times | April 7 2005

Afghanistan's defence minister on Tuesday gave one of the clearest signs yet that Kabul is open to permanent basing of US forces in the country, saying his government was in discussions with the US that could include air bases in Afghanistan after the current nation-building process ends.

General Abdul Rahim Wardak said the details of what would constitute a long-term US presence were still under discussion. But he signalled Kabul was eager for “enduring arrangements” that could include permanent air bases or “pre-positioned” military equipment that would be used by rapidly deployed US forces in a crisis.

“We will certainly seek enduring relations and partnerships with our international friends,” Gen Wardak told a gathering of military analysts in London. “This will prevent the repetition of the catastrophic disengagement of the international community from Afghanistan in the 1990s, which cost us all so dearly.”

The discussions have been under way for several months, but both US and Afghan officials have been reluctant to discuss the issue given geopolitical sensitivities in the region, particularly in neighbouring Iran.

Senator John McCain, an influential Republican on defence issues, first hinted at such a possibility in February, when after a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, he said it was his “personal view” that permanent joint bases should be established.

Last month, General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, acknowledged during a trip to Afghanistan that the US was considering such a move. Such comments come as the US continues to expand its capabilities at its main air base in Bagram, a Soviet-era facility north of Kabul, where it is building a new runway. Bagram would be the most likely location of a permanent US presence.

Gen Wardak sought to assuage concerns of neighbouring countries of a permanent US presence, saying any agreement with the US would come at the same time Kabul attempted to secure security pacts with regional powers.

He dismissed reports that the US was using Afghanistan as a staging base to conduct reconnaissance operations in Iran. “The US has enough electronic capability to do it from anywhere else. They don't need to do it from Afghanistan.”

The US military is due this week to hand control of a civil-military unit based in the western city of Herat, close to the Iranian border, to Nato. The handover is part of a scheduled expansion of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, but may help quell rumours that the US was using the unit as a figleaf for a military build-up near Afghanistan's neighbour.