Jason Burke, Kabul
American and Afghan officials are locked in increasingly acrimonious talks about a long-term security agreement. Photo: Reuters
AMERICAN and Afghan officials are locked in increasingly acrimonious talks about a long-term security agreement which is likely to see US troops, spies and air power based in the troubled country for decades.
Though not publicised, negotiations have been under way for more than a month to secure an agreement which would include an American presence beyond the end of 2014 – the agreed date for all 130,000 US combat troops to leave.
American officials admit that although US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that Washington did not want any ”permanent” bases in Afghanistan, her phrasing allows a variety of possible arrangements.
”There are US troops in various countries for some considerable lengths of time which are not there permanently,” a US official said.
Precedents include the US military presence in Europe and Japan since World War II and, more recently, in Iraq.
British troops, NATO officials say, will also remain in Afghanistan long past the end of 2014, largely in training or mentoring roles.
Although they will not be ”combat troops”, it does not mean they will not take part in combat. Mentors could regularly fight alongside Afghan troops, for example.
Senior NATO officials also predict that the insurgency in Afghanistan will continue after 2014.
There are at least five bases which are likely candidates to house large contingents of American special forces, intelligence operatives, surveillance equipment and military hardware post-2014. The bases would constitute rare strategic assets in a volatile region.
News of the US-Afghan talks has sparked deep concern among powers in the region and beyond. Russia and India are understood to have made their concerns about a long-term US presence known to Washington and Kabul. China has also made its disquiet clear.
American negotiators will arrive later this month in Kabul for a new round of talks. The Afghans rejected the Americans’ first draft of a strategic partnership agreement in its entirety, preferring to draft their own proposal. This was submitted to Washington two weeks ago. The US draft was ”vaguely formulated”, one Afghan official said.
Afghan negotiators are now preparing detailed annexes to their own proposal which lists specific demands.
The Afghans are playing a delicate game, however. President Hamid Karzai and senior officials see an enduring American presence and broader strategic relationship as essential, in part to protect Afghanistan from its neighbours.
Ashraf Ghani, a former presidential candidate and one of the Afghan negotiators, said that while there was ”consensus on core issues”, big disagreements remained.
One is whether the Americans will equip an Afghan air force. Another is the question of US troops launching operations outside Afghanistan from bases within the country. A third contentious issue is the legal basis on which troops might remain. The Afghans also want to have ultimate authority over foreign troops’ use and deployment.