KABUL, Afghanistan, April 13 -- President Hamid Karzai said Wednesday that he was seeking a long-term security arrangement with the United States, but he declined to say whether it would include the establishment of permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Karzai said the Afghan people strongly favor such an agreement.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, visiting Afghanistan for the ninth time, meets with troops in the southern city of Kandahar after a town hall-style meeting.
(Gerald Herbert -- AP)
"They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship, and most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to help Afghanistan defend itself," said Karzai, who won his nation's first democratic presidential election in October.
Rumsfeld, who was in Afghanistan for a one-day visit, also sidestepped the question of permanent bases.
"That is not a matter for the Department of Defense," he said. "That is a matter for the president of the United States and the president of Afghanistan to discuss in an orderly way."
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon was focused on determining what further assistance the United States could offer the war-ravaged nation.
"It may be training, it may be equipping, it may be various other types of assistance," he said.
The prospect of a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan could prove controversial, given the nation's long history of resisting foreign occupation. Afghan officials have said such a move would require the approval of parliament, due to be elected in September.
Three years after U.S. led-forces ousted the extremist Taliban regime, an 18,500-member international coalition -- dominated by 17,000 U.S. troops -- continues to hunt fighters of the Islamic militia and allied al Qaeda militants in rural areas. The U.S. military has also recently taken on a larger role in combating the burgeoning opium trade by providing intelligence, air transport and training to Afghan counternarcotics forces.
In recent weeks Taliban insurgents have killed several local Afghan officials in the south and mounted a series of ambushes on U.S. and Afghan soldiers. Officials said Taliban fighters may also have been responsible for small-scale bombings in several cities, including Kabul, and the attempted kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in the capital Sunday.
Meanwhile, about 1,000 angry farmers clashed Tuesday with U.S.-trained anti-drug forces that had arrived to destroy their poppy crops in a village in the southern province of Kandahar. One Afghan man was killed and several others were injured.
Afghanistan was the source of nearly 90 percent of the world's opium supply last year. And despite a marked decline in poppy cultivation this year, U.S. military officials have expressed concern that Afghanistan is at risk of becoming a narco-state.
Asked to list Afghanistan's greatest challenges, Rumsfeld mentioned the threat from both terrorists and drug lords. But he also emphasized the economic and political progress that the nation of 28 million has made over the last three years.
"It's been impressive to see," Rumsfeld said.
The defense secretary flew into Afghanistan from Iraq, where he made a surprise trip Tuesday.
The visit to Afghanistan -- Rumsfeld's ninth -- began with a stop at a large U.S. military base in the city of Kandahar and the smaller base of a provincial reconstruction team in Zabol province in the country's southeast. After flying to Kabul for talks, Rumsfeld traveled to Pakistan, where he was scheduled to meet with the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.