KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. wants to keep nine bases in Afghanistan after U.S. combat troops withdraw in 2014 which is fine as long as America makes "security and economic guarantees" in exchange, President Hamid Karzai said Thursday in his first public overture in what have been private talks on a future pact between the uneasy allies.
The United States has not formally announced how many American troops might remain in Afghanistan after the end of 2014 when the international military coalition ends its combat mission. U.S. officials have said as many as 12,000 American and coalition forces could stay to train and advise Afghan security forces and continue counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and other extremists.
The Afghan government would have to approve any such decision, but months of negotiations over a bilateral security agreement have been troubled with disagreements about the handover of detainees and anger over alleged misbehavior by American troops.
Yet a U.S. defense official in Washington said he had not heard the number nine mentioned. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media about the negotiations, the official said the general concept is that the Bilateral Security Agreement would set terms under which the U.S. military would have temporary access to bases in Afghanistan for certain defined purposes, as opposed to the U.S. having permanent bases in the country.
Karzai has made many statements about issues involved in the negotiations, but his comments at a ceremony at Kabul University offered the first confirmation of how many bases the U.S. was seeking to keep in the country.
"We are giving the bases, nine bases they want from Afghanistan — in all of Afghanistan," he said.
In return, Afghanistan wants a U.S. commitment to boost Afghan security, strengthen its armed forces and provide long-term economic development assistance.
"It is our condition that they bring security and bring it quickly and strengthen the Afghan forces and the economy," he said. "When they (the Americans) do this, we are ready to sign" a partnership agreement.
Karzai said the U.S. wants to keep bases in Kabul; Bagram Air Field, north of the capital; Mazar-e-Sharif in the north; Jalalabad and Gardez near the eastern border with Pakistan; Kandahar and Helmand provinces, which are Taliban strongholds in the south; and Shindand and Herat in western Afghanistan.
It wasn't clear why Karzai chose Thursday to reveal the U.S. request for nine bases. While he offered specifics about the bases, he was vague about U.S. intentions in Afghanistan after 2014.
"They are looking at their interest and we are looking at our interest," he said. "What is the interest of America? They can explain."
David Snepp, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, declined to discuss details of the agreement, citing a policy of not commenting on specifics during the ongoing negotiations.
"However, as President Obama has stated, the U.S. does not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan," Snepp said. "We envision that the ... agreement will address access to and use of Afghan facilities by U.S. forces in the future."
Karzai did not refer to "existing" bases in his comments, saying only that the U.S. has requested nine bases in the country.
Another undecided issue involves the future activities of non-U.S. forces in the NATO-led military coalition. Karzai questioned NATO's intentions post-2014 and set out Afghanistan's demands.
"First NATO told us they are all leaving. Now they are coming and saying 'No we are not going. We are staying,'" he said. "We know they are not going."
But before Afghanistan accepts NATO soldiers, Karzai said he wants each of NATO's 28 member countries to negotiate directly with his government about how many soldiers each wants to keep in Afghanistan, where they will be deployed and how it will benefit the country.
Moreover, Karzai said he wants each NATO country to disclose its plan for providing assistance to Afghanistan, including the kind of aid, how many civilians would be involved and — again — how the aid would benefit his nation.
"We want each NATO country to have a direct relationship with us," Karzai said.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the talks told The Associated Press earlier that the U.S. and Karzai are at odds over his request that the United States guarantee that it would side with Afghanistan if neighboring Pakistan poses a threat. So far, the U.S. is refusing, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
The negotiations over a security agreement have been protracted and at times acrimonious, reflecting Washington's relationship with Karzai, who often has strong words of criticism for Washington. In March, when it appeared that the agreement was about to be signed, Karzai suggested that the U.S. and the Taliban were benefiting each other — and even in collusion — to keep U.S. troops in the country, though the U.S. has been fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan for more than a decade.
As a result, the U.S. put the agreement on hold.
Some Afghans familiar with the Afghan president said his tough talk is a negotiating ploy to get more from the United States, particularly when it comes to neighboring Pakistan. Tensions between the two countries have escalated dramatically in the past two weeks, with both sides accusing each other of unprovoked attacks across their shared border.
During his speech marking the 80th anniversary of Kabul University, Karzai warned Pakistan against sending its forces across the border or trying to force Afghanistan to accept the disputed Durand Line — the 19th century demarcation between present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan — as the international border.
"We want a civilized relationship with Pakistan, but if any neighbor wants Afghanistan under its shadow ... it is not possible," Karzai said. "If there is any attack or any violation to force Afghanistan to accept the Durand Line, the Afghan nation will never accept it and will never recognize the Durand Line. Impossible."