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Karzai: Afghans want permanent U.S. presence

QUANTICO, Virgina - Most Afghans want a binding security pact with the United States that would keep American troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, a senior adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Wednesday.

Negotiations for such a pact have lagged in part because "some in the Afghan government are trying to sabotage it," said Taj Ayubi, minister-counselor to Karzai.

Ayubi was not specific, but was apparently referring to factions within the weak central government with ties to Iran, or to a lesser extent, Pakistan or the Taliban insurgency. Iran opposes any U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and U.S. and other officials say Iran is trying to use its growing influence in neighboring Afghanistan to lobby against a deal that would provide the U.S. a long-term military perch.

The agreement, now in draft form, would give the U.S. use of Afghan-run or jointly-run bases after 2014, when the formal combat role is set to end. Senior U.S. officials have said its central function is to provide assurance to Afghans that the U.S. will not shut the door on Afghanistan in 2014, while establishing terms for continued U.S. counterterrorism, training and counter-narcotics operations.

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U.S. officials stress that U.S. military presence will be at Afghanistan's invitation.

Ayubi said the document would give security assurances "from 2014 until we can stand on our own."

The agreement is not expected to include firm deadlines for the close of U.S operations.

After nearly 10 years of war, many Afghans are weary of foreign troops and blame the flood of U.S. cash for various security and stability programs for distorting the economy and sucking up a corps of talented Afghans for contract labor. Still, Ayubi predicted broad backing for an agreement once it is in hand.

The U.S. public and Congress are increasingly frustrated by the war, with a majority in public opinion polls now saying it is probably not worth fighting.

"Most people in Afghanistan are strongly in favor of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan," Ayubi told an audience at Marine Corps University.

"They are in favor of a long-term strategic agreement that includes basic rights for the U.S. military, despite the objections of neighbor states" he said. "Afghanistan is the most logical place for the U.S. to have a base."

Spelling out that some level of U.S. forces intend to remain would strengthen Karzai's hand against foreign meddling and in any eventual political negotiation with the Taliban, Ayubi suggested.

"Basing rights would bring a lot of stability and it would also convince the outside actors that the U.S. is there to stay," he said.

Two U.S. officials said somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 troops would probably be needed for the smaller role envisioned after 2014, but the security pact is not expected to give exact parameters.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said President Barack Obama has not made any decisions about U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

"Those decisions will be made at the appropriate time, based on our interests and conditions on the ground," she said.

Karzai sought the agreement more than a year ago amid growing Afghan concern that the U.S. planned a rapid military withdrawal. The U.S. is the biggest international backer of Karzai's government and its approximately 100,000 troops are a security buffer against the Taliban insurgency that opposes him.

The pact would not have the force of law, although Afghanistan is expected to seek consensus from a panel of elders called a loya jirga. The United States is not expected to submit the document to Congress for approval.

Afghan officials told The Associated Press this week that the document is too vague and does not go far enough to justify the risk they will take in signing it.

A delegation led by Afghanistan's national security adviser will be in Washington next week for a third round of talks on the agreement. A senior U.S. official and two Afghan officials with knowledge of the talks said the two countries intend to finish an agreement before an international conference on Afghanistan's future to be held in Bonn, Germany, in early December. The NSC's Hayden said there is no deadline to complete negotiations.

Among the sticking points being negotiated are which troops will take the lead in conducting nighttime kill-and-capture raids, a flash point for anger over foreign meddling in Afghanistan and whether detention operations will be run by the Afghans or Americans.