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US troops can remain after 2014, Karzai says

Afghan leader softens rhetoric

KABUL — Afghanistan is ready to let the United States and its allies keep military bases here after the end of the NATO combat mission next year, President Hamid Karzai said Thursday, offering a concrete public signal that foreign troops would remain welcome in the coming years.

The United States and Afghanistan are negotiating a security agreement that would allow US forces to stay here beyond the end of 2014, and Karzai said the Obama administration has asked for nine bases spread across the country.

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‘‘We agree to give them these bases,’’ Karzai told students during a speech at Kabul University. ‘‘We consider our relations with the United States beyond 2014 to be positive for Afghanistan.’’

But the US reaction was less than positive. Officials characterized Karzai’s comments as premature and said they appeared to reflect the Afghan government’s desire for a larger force than the United States is likely willing to commit.

The Obama administration has yet to decide how large a force it would like to keep in Afghanistan, but administration officials have signaled that it is unlikely to total more than 10,000 service members. They said it was more important now to hash out a range of issues, such as whether US troops would continue to have legal immunity in Afghanistan after 2014, than to talk about the specifics of where troops would be based.

The US officials also stressed that no matter the final number of troops, the United States envisions using Afghan bases, not its own, to house its forces.

‘‘As President Obama has made clear, we do not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan,’’ the US Embassy said in a statement. Any deal would ‘‘address access to, and use of, Afghan facilities by US forces.’’

Still, the officials seemed relieved that the comments were generally positive, especially in light of more recent statements from Karzai, such as when he suggested that both the US-led coalition and the Taliban were working to destabilize the government.

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