The United States needs permanent military bases in Afghanistan to protect its "vital national security interests" in the region, Arizona Sen. John McCain (search) said Tuesday after talks with the Afghan president.
McCain's remarks were the latest indication of American and British aspirations to cement their influence in this former Al Qaeda (search) stronghold on the doorstep of Iran (search), China and nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan (search) and India.
McCain, part of a five-member Senate delegation that met President Hamid Karzai (search) at his palace in the Afghan capital, said he was committed to a "strategic partnership that we believe must endure for many, many years."
"Not only because of our appreciation of Afghanistan, but also we believe there will be vital national security interests in this region for a long time," McCain said.
Asked by reporters what such a partnership would entail, he identified "economic assistance, technical assistance, military partnership including — and this is a personal view — joint military permanent bases and also cultural exchanges."
McCain, the No. 2 Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not elaborate on what kind of American military presence he was advocating.
Karzai did not address the issue at a joint news conference, limiting himself to expressing thanks.
"It is because of help from the United States that Afghanistan has what it has today, be it in reconstruction, be it in economy, in elections, in the very fact that this is a country that is now owning itself."
Asked about McCain's comments regarding permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said, "It's premature to even consider something like that." He said there are no such discussions under way with the Afghan government.
Other members of the U.S. delegation, which arrived in Kabul after stops in Baghdad, Iraq, and Islamabad, Pakistan, also backed long-term U.S.-Afghan ties but gave no specifics.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said she hoped to expand a "friendship and partnership which is very important to the United States and something that we believe very strongly is in the interests of both" countries.
A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, Gen. Mohammed Zaher Azimi, would say only that American and NATO forces were "needed in Afghanistan and are here legitimately to expand the Afghan security sector."
Questions on permanent foreign bases were "for the top level of government to answer," Azimi said.
Afghanistan's neighbors include Pakistan to the south and east, China to the northeast and oil-rich Central Asia to the north. It also shares a long and porous border with Iran, which the U.S. government accuses of running a covert nuclear arms program.
Iranian leaders and U.S. military commanders have warned that instability in Iran would have negative effects on Afghanistan. President Bush said in Brussels, Belgium, that it is "simply ridiculous" to assume that the United States has plans to attack Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program.
"Having said that, all options are on the table," Bush said Tuesday after discussing the issue with European allies.
Officials from the Afghan government and the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan told The Associated Press earlier this month they are examining a military partnership which could include permanent American bases here.
Visiting British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said last week that Britain was appointing a former commander of Afghanistan's international peacekeeping force as a special envoy to explore its own "strategic partnership" with Afghanistan.
However, Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak has also requested high-tech weaponry, such as attack helicopters and special forces, for the new U.S.-trained Afghan National Army to reduce the need for foreign troops.
There are about 17,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan hunting remnants of Al Qaeda and the former ruling Taliban. Many of them are stationed at three main air bases: the sprawling facility at Bagram north of Kabul, where the runway is being expanded; Khost near the Pakistani border; and the airport serving the southern city of Kandahar.
The Afghan army, which currently numbers about 20,000 and is taking part in counterinsurgency operations in troubled areas near the Pakistani frontier, is to reach its full strength of 70,000 by the end of 2006.
The other members of the visiting U.S. delegation were Senate Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. All but Feingold sit on the Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Defense Department budget.