US to begin talks on security deal with Afghans
Gates rules out permanent military bases
KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States is beginning to decide what its responsibilities will be in Afghanistan after US combat troops leave, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday, but he ruled out permanent military bases in the strategically important country.
President Hamid Karzai wants US military support even as he heavily criticizes the current US-led military campaign for being too quick on the trigger. Nine Afghan boys died in an accidental airstrike last week, reopening a raw issue.
Gates said the United States is interested in keeping a military presence in this former Al Qaeda haven beyond the planned end of combat in three years.
At a news conference with Karzai, Gates said a team of US officials would arrive here next week to begin negotiations over a new compact for US-Afghan security relations after 2014, when all international combat forces are supposed to be gone. US forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001, and President Obama has repeatedly said the war is not open-ended.
The Pentagon chief also said the United States and its allies will be “well positioned’’ to begin withdrawing forces in July this year, although he gave no specifics. The withdrawal would continue through 2014, with Afghan forces gradually taking over the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.
Gates’s promise to draft a post-2014 “strategic partnership’’ with this poor, unstable nation is meant to reassure the mercurial Karzai, who fears that he and the country’s fragile civilian government might be overthrown without US military backing. It is not clear how far-reaching or binding the document would be.
Vexing questions remain about whether Kabul will be ready to govern by 2015 and prevent a return to extremist Taliban rule.
After Afghanistan, Gates planned to fly to the Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of US Africa Command to attend a ceremony tomorrow marking the arrival of a new commander, Army General Carter Ham. Gates will attend a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
Gates opened his remarks in Afghanistan by offering a personal apology for the children’s deaths last week, an incident that had prompted Karzai on Sunday to issue a statement calling the deaths unacceptable. Karzai rejected an apology issued by General David Petraeus, the top commander of American and NATO forces in the country.
“This breaks our hearts,’’ Gates said of the deaths. He called it a setback, too, for US ties to the Afghan people — a relationship that is central to Petraeus’s strategy for countering the Taliban insurgency by winning the loyalty of ordinary Afghans.
Asked by a reporter whether he accepted Gates’s apology, Karzai said, “I trust him fully when he says he’s sorry.’’ He added that words alone from even the most senior American defense official was not enough for Afghans tired of civilian casualties.
“They want it not reduced — they want it stopped,’’ Karzai said.
The top US commander in the area where the nine boys were killed, Army Major General John Campbell, told reporters traveling with Gates that the incident was regrettable, but he also said without offering any details, “there is a lot more to that story.’’ He said it is still being investigated.
Campbell said 90 percent of civilian casualties in his area of responsibility are caused by the Taliban.
Gates arrived yesterday on a two-day visit intended to give him a firsthand sense of how Obama’s war strategy is faring, and whether it is on track to sufficiently weaken the Taliban while building up the capacity of Afghanistan’s own army and police.
“While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well positioned to begin drawing down some US and coalition forces this July, even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country,’’ he said. He added a reassurance to Karzai that, “we are not leaving’’ this summer. “Come September, October and beyond, there will still be substantial numbers of coalition troops still partnering with Afghans,’’ he said.
Karzai and Gates both mentioned that their discussions included the topic of negotiating a strategic partnership, which in Karzai’s eyes is a way to parlay the enormous US investment in blood and treasury since 2001 into the foundations of long-term stability.
“The specifics remain to be negotiated,’’ Gates said. “But I would say that if the Afghan people and the Afghan government are interested in an ongoing security relationship,’’ with some level of US military presence, “the United States, I think, is open to the possibility of having some presence here in terms of training and assistance,’’ possibly using Afghan bases.