Afghan leader seeking stronger ties with U.S.

Karzai wants to establish long-term partnership, possibly permanent base

April 14, 2005|By Halima Kazem | Halima Kazem,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - Despite growing concerns about the United States' influence in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai called yesterday for a tighter bond between the two nations and possibly a permanent U.S. military base.

In a news conference in Kabul with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Karzai said Afghan citizens wanted a long-term relationship with the United States.

"They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship and most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to enable Afghanistan to defend itself, to continue to prosper, to stop the possibility of interferences in Afghanistan," he said.

Karzai said he has previously discussed this with President Bush but is now planning to send him a formal request, although he did not say when.

Rumsfeld refused to say whether the United States wants permanent military bases in Afghanistan, but he said that the decision would come from the White House.

"What we generally do when we work with another country is what we have been doing. We find ways we can be helpful, maybe training, equipment or other types of assistance," Rumsfeld said. "We think in terms of what we are doing rather than the question of military bases and that type thing."

U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 to oust the Taliban regime and hunt for al-Qaida militants.

About 17,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, and their main mission is to search for militants, particularly in the southeast.

They operate out of Bagram Air Base near Kabul and another facility in the southern province Kandahar.

The United States also has access to bases in neighboring Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

While many Afghans warmly received the Americans at first, perceptions of the U.S. military have been changing.

Once very optimistic about U.S. efforts to bring peace to the country, some Afghans blame current power struggles between warlords and the central government on poor strategy by the U.S. military.

"We were very happy with the Americans at first. They got rid of the Taliban government with the help of the local commanders, but now these commanders are terrorizing the people," said Akbar Hanif, a shopkeeper in the northern province of Kunduz.

Political analysts say that the U.S. military must distance itself from local warlords if it wants support among ordinary Afghans.

"If the Americans truly want to help rebuild Afghanistan, they must stop cooperating with the local warlords who are undermining the central government," said Kabir Ranjbar, a professor of law at Kabul University. "They must reform their policy and win the trust of the people again."

Ranjbar said that a long-term security guarantee from the United States could keep neighboring countries - particularly Iran and Pakistan - from meddling in Afghanistan's affairs.

"Afghanistan needs ally countries, and of all of our allies, the United States could be one country with positive intentions," Ranjbar said.

But other observers note that through stronger military ties with Afghanistan, the United States may be seeking to strengthen its own position in the region to counter increasingly tight relations among India, China and Russia.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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