Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a ceremony at Kabul University on May 9. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP)
"The United States does not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan," press secretary Jay Carney assured reporters aboard Air Force One as President Barack Obama headed to Texas. "Any U.S. presence after 2014 would only be at the invitation of the Afghan government, and aim at training Afghan forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaida."
Here's the thing: Carney's words are essentially meaningless. Officially, no American military base on foreign soil is labeled "permanent"—not even the vast facilities anchored in England, Japan and Korea for more than a half-century. The bases all depend on the host country's continued willingness to host U.S. forces.
The issue came up in a very similar context in the later years of then-President George W. Bush's term, when his administration was negotiating with Iraq on the future of the American military presence there. The Obama administration has been negotiating with Karzai on the size and role of a "residual force" after the bulk of NATO forces leave by the end of 2014.
"We envision that the bilateral security agreement will address access to and use of Afghan facilities by U.S. forces," Carney said.
Has the president decided on the size of that residual force? Carney replied that it was an "ongoing process" and stressed that "we are in the process of drawing down our forces in keeping with the president’s commitment and policy together with our partners."
It's not yet clear whether the Afghan government will agree to a key U.S. request—that American troops be immune from local prosecution. Iraq's refusal to accept that led Obama to abandon plans to station a residual force there.
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