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Afghanistan/U.S.: 'Strategic Partnership' Seen As Move Toward De Facto Rights For U.S. Bases

By Ron Synovitz

The strategic partnership agreed to at the White House on 23 May by U.S. President George W. Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai seeks to ensure long-term cooperation between the two governments. In their memorandum of understanding, Bush pledged continued help to strengthen security forces, democracy, and the Afghan economy. Karzai agreed that U.S. forces will continue to have access to the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul and other strategic military installations.

Prague, 25 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai says the strategic partnership with the United States he has agreed to is in the best interest of both countries. Karzai says it is necessary because the creation of an Afghan parliament through elections in September will not mean his country is suddenly stable and capable of standing on its own.

"I'm glad that [President Bush] signed with me a memorandum of understanding on the long-term partnership between Afghanistan and the United States of America -- which will make sure that Afghanistan continues to receive reconstruction assistance; which will make sure that Afghanistan continues to receive training from the U.S. for its military and the police; and which will enable Afghanistan to stand on its own feet eventually; and to be a good, active member of the region -- contributing to peace and stability in the region; and to be a bridge between various parts of that part of the world for trade and values," Karzai said.

Bush said the partnership is based on a "strategic vision" against international terrorism, violent religious extremism, and drug trafficking. He said the strategy calls for continued support in the areas of security, democratic reform, and economic reconstruction.

"It's a partnership that establishes regular high-level exchanges on political, security, and economic issues of mutual interests," Bush said. "We will consult with Afghanistan if it perceives its territorial integrity, independence or security is at risk. We will help the Afghan people build strong, lasting government and civic institutions. We will continue to support reconstruction, economic development, and investments that will help educate and build up the skills of the Afghan people."

Analysts who have been studying the details of the joint declaration by Bush and Karzai said they were especially struck by one paragraph. That paragraph says "it is understood" that U.S. military forces will continue to have access to the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul and other strategic military facilities "as may be mutually determined."

It also says U.S. and NATO forces will continue to have "freedom of action" to conduct military operations that are based on "consultations and pre-approved procedures."

Ian Kemp, a London-based independent defense analyst, said such language suggests U.S. military forces will remain at bases in Afghanistan for a long time.

"Any strategic partnership should be to the benefit of both countries," Kemp said. "What the United States would be expecting to supply to the Afghan forces is continuing assistance -- both in terms of training and in terms of equipment. A continuation of what we've seen over the past four years of building up the Afghan security forces themselves. But in return for that, the United States is going to be looking for the basing of U.S. troops and U.S. aircraft in Afghanistan. And also, [the United States will be looking for] host-nation support. And possibly, intelligence."

Anatol Lieven, an expert on Afghanistan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed that the issue of long-term U.S. military bases is central to the partnership.

"I've always been completely sure that the Americans intended to keep Bagram -- and other places as well -- as permanent bases," Lieven said. "This, I think, will just take things a further step toward formalizing that. It is potentially very, very controversial within Afghanistan. [But] frankly, from Afghanistan's point of view, it probably will be necessary to keep the Americans and NATO around for a very long time to prevent Afghanistan's own inner demons from taking over again."

Lieven said it is significant that Bush spoke of signing "a strategic partnership" while Karzai stressed that their agreement is a "memorandum of understanding." The Afghan Constitution requires parliament to approve formal treaties. But Karzai could have difficulties getting a future parliament to agree to give long-term basing rights to the U.S. military.

"The fact that this document is a 'memorandum of understanding' -- and not a treaty -- is very important," Lieven said. "I don't think that Karzai would dare to submit a treaty agreeing to long-term American basing rights to an Afghan parliament, when and or if the Afghan parliament is ever convoked. I think it would provoke massive resistance. And it could cause a very major political crisis in Afghanistan. The point is, rather, to give all kinds of guarantees to the Americans. But at a less formal level which will allow for de facto basing rights to continue indefinitely and, in return, procure for Karzai and Afghanistan more commitments of American support."

Lieven said the most important aspect of the strategic partnership for Afghanistan is the psychological security it provides. He said it shows that the United States is not considering withdrawal. And that, he said, is essential for keeping European countries and other members of NATO involved in Afghanistan.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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