American negotiators are working out a deal that could allow US forces to remain in Afghanistan for decades. All this nonsense about an American withdrawal by 2014 was always just that - nonsense.
The Pentagon wants a geopolitical military presence in the South Asia region anchored to a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf region, preferably in Iraq. At the moment it seems that Maliki and Karzai are both vulnerable enough to go for such a deal.
According to The Guardian, Karzai is driving a hard bargain. Karzai is said to be demanding a modern, combat-capable air force complete with jet aircraft. So far the Americans are giving that a big "no."
There are at least five bases in Afghanistan which are likely candidates to house large contingents of American special forces, intelligence operatives, surveillance equipment and military hardware post-2014. In the heart of one of the most unstable regions in the world and close to the borders of Pakistan, Iran and China, as well as to central Asia and the Persian Gulf, the bases would be rare strategic assets.
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 both Washington and Kabul. China, which has pursued a policy of strict non-intervention beyond economic affairs in Afghanistan, has also made its disquiet clear. During a recent visit, senior Pakistani officials were reported to have tried to convince their Afghan counterparts to look to China as a strategic partner, not the US.
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 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.
One thing the Americans want is the right to use US bases in Afghanistan to launch operations outside the country, perhaps into Iran or Pakistan. Afghanistan has said it won't hear of the idea yet the Americans did stage their raid to kill bin Laden out of Afghanistan.
This is an excellent example of how NATO and America so often wind up at cross purposes. The United States has an agenda for Afghanistan that is quite different than NATO's and the two simply cannot be reconciled. It's why NATO has to stop playing the role of America's Foreign Legion.