When Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited the United States last month, he and President Bush signed a "strategic partnership." Just what that entails remains vague. The possibility of a long term U.S. troop presence is a controversial prospect in Afghanistan.
When riots erupted in Afghanistan last month, blame was quickly placed on a now-discredited story in the U.S. magazine, Newsweek. The magazine said a Pentagon report found that U.S. military guards at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran in an effort to rattle prisoners during interrogation. Newsweek later retracted the story.
Afghan President Karzai says he believes broader issues were to blame for the riots.
"Those demonstrations were in reality not related to the Newsweek
story,” said Mr. Karzai. “They were more against the elections in Afghanistan. They were more against the progress in Afghanistan. They were more against the strategic partnership with the United States."
Barnett Rubin, head of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, says the vaguely defined "strategic partnership" is fueling unrest in Afghanistan, because it raises the possibility of permanent U.S. bases on Afghan soil.
Mr. Rubin, a longtime scholar of Afghan affairs, says there is already deep ambivalence among Afghans about the U.S. presence in their country.
"Afghans by and large still accept that the United States presence is necessary for now to stabilize the country, and protect it from its neighbors, and also, to some extent, from themselves,” Mr. Rubin noted. “But an issue like granting long-term bases to a foreign power on your soil is extremely sensitive for any country. And it's not something that can be decided in the absence of a parliament."
Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College, says Mr. Karzai wants to cement the U.S.-Afghan partnership before a parliament is elected in September, so that he does not have to deal with an organized political opposition on the issue.
"What we've seen with Karzai is an effort to try to develop this long-term partnership, which he sees as being very much in Afghan interests, and, certainly, in his personal interest,” said Mr. Goodson. “Karzai has been pushing for this. He's doing so within this window of opportunity that he has by virtue of not having a parliament in place. He's the government right now, he and his Cabinet."
About 17,000 U.S. troops are engaged in operations in Afghanistan, along with some 1600 allied troops engaged in mainly peacekeeping duties. The United States already has basing agreements in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Both countries have been hit recently by political unrest.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said in late February that any talk of U.S. basing in Afghanistan is premature.
"There's no plans. It's premature to even consider something like that. We are in Afghanistan for the mission that we're conducting, which is to continue to root out the Taleban, and continue to help the Afghan government as it emerges through its own period of electoral process," said Mr. Di Rita.
The Afghan insurgency, while nowhere near the level of the one in Iraq, is getting bolder. There was a suicide bombing at a mosque in Kandahar Wednesday, killing 19 people, including the Kabul police chief. While suicide bombings are an everyday tactic in Iraq, they are extremely rare in the Afghan insurgency.
Mr. Goodson of the War College says the Afghan insurgents have not pushed too hard in the expectation that the United States will eventually disengage from Afghanistan, just as it did after the Soviet forces withdrew from the country in 1989.
"Al-Qaida and the Taleban are basically saying, 'we'll just wait America out. We know America won't stay the course more than five, seven, maybe 10 years. Then they leave, and we're here to pick up the pieces. And so to the extent that we can nudge America along, that's great. But we don't want to nudge them too hard, which would push them to continue to stay,'" explained Mr. Goodson.
Mr. Goodson adds that, across the border, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is in a similar situation, knowing that a close relationship with the United States provokes a backlash from religious-based anti-Western parties in his country.