President Hamid Karzai (search) said Wednesday he is preparing a formal request to President Bush for a long-term security partnership that could include a permanent U.S. military presence.

At a joint news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), Karzai said he had consulted many of his country's citizens in recent weeks about "a strategic security relationship," with the United States that could help Afghanistan (search) avoid foreign interference and military conflicts.

"The conclusion we have drawn is that the Afghan people want a long-term relationship with the United States," Karzai said. "They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship and most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to enable Afghanistan defend itself, to continue to prosper, to stop the possibility of interferences in Afghanistan."

Karzai said he has previously discussed this with Bush, but is now planning to formalize the request, but did not say when.

Rumsfeld was asked about America's willingness to offer security guarantees to Afghanistan and to establish permanent military bases here. He said this was a matter for President Bush to decide.

He described the military-to-military relationship between Afghanistan and the United States as good, and said it had grown and strengthened, but he was noncommittal on whether Washington hoped to establish permanent military bases.

"What we generally do when we work with another country ... We find ways we can be helpful, maybe training, equipment or other types of assistance. We think in terms of what we are doing rather than the question of military bases and that type thing," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld was on an unannounced, whistlestop visit to the war-torn country before flying on to Pakistan later Wednesday for meetings with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search) and other leaders.

Earlier, Rumsfeld met with U.S. troops in the southeastern cities of Kandahar and Qalat, following Tuesday's visit to Iraq.

In Qalat, where U.S. troops are running what they call a provincial reconstruction team that provides civic aid as well as security for reconstruction projects, Rumsfeld visited U.S. soldiers on a morale boosting mission mixed with official talks on the future U.S. role in Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders told Rumsfeld in detailed briefing on their operations in Zabul Province along the Pakistan border that Taliban fighters still have some sanctuaries and support among the local population, but that U.S. forces operating with newly trained Afghan troops are making steady progress in eroding that support.

Qalat is in a region about 90 miles north of Kandahar and 30 miles from the Pakistan border where the Afghan government is struggling with a counternarcotics campaign while also fighting remnants of the Taliban militia that ruled the country before U.S. forces invaded in October 2001.

Rumsfeld's visit to Qalat underscored the importance the Pentagon places on the approach of using troops to facilitate reconstruction and civil affairs work.

He shook hands and posed for photographs with a group of soldiers in Qalat and thanked them for their work before flying back to Kandahar where he spoke to several hundred soldiers and answered questions from several of them.

One soldier asked when the Army would shorten tours from 12 to six months for those serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. As he also had said a day earlier in Iraq, Rumsfeld said the Army was thinking about that, but had not made a decision.

Rumsfeld, whose itinerary was not being disclosed in advance by U.S. officials for security reasons, told the soldiers that both Afghans and Americans one day will look back on this period as a turning point in the spread of freedom. "You're earning your place in history," he said.