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Afghanistan presses for answers on long-term U.S. military bases

By Sanjeev Miglani and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan wants the United States to clearly spell out what sort of military presence it will leave behind once most of its combat troops leave by the end of 2014, a senior Afghan official said.

It is also pressing Washington in talks over future cooperation to detail to be more forthcoming on what will be on offer for Afghan forces as they ready to take over responsibility security in the country that is still at war.

"These are issues that concern us. We want to know how many bases will be there, how many soldiers and what will be their mission. And what will we get from the United States for our security forces," President Hamid Karzai's chief spokesman Aimal Faizi told Reuters, without specifying what levels he thought would be appropriate.

In negotiations for a Strategic Partnership Deal on long-term cooperation, one of the stumbling blocks is the U.S. plan for a limited military presence to ensure members of al Qaeda and other militant groups do not find a sanctuary again.

Countries such as Russia, China and Pakistan are wary of an indefinite U.S. military presence in the region. Neighboring Iran strongly opposes the plan.

"Ultimately, it is we who are responsible for our security. We are moving towards taking full control. If there will be foreign military, then it has to be put clearly in a future security document," another senior Afghan official said.

The issue comes at a time of growing sensitivity over the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan after a series on incidents involving U.S. troops.

In January a video surfaced showing U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, followed by burning of copies of the Koran at the main American base in Bagram.

Then this month 16 people, mostly children and women, were killed in two villages of Kandahar in an unexplained shooting rampage blamed on a U.S. soldier. Karzai called for NATO forces to pull out of rural areas and stay in their bases, saying he was at the "end of the rope."

A spike in so-called green-on-blue attacks on foreign forces by Afghan army and police has stoked concern that some of that anger is spilling over into the security forces and turning them against their western allies.

The talks halted after the Kandahar killings but have since resumed.

Because of Afghan concerns, both sides have agreed to separately discuss the issue of military bases while pressing on with the strategic partnership deal they hope to wrap up by May when a NATO summit in Chicago is scheduled.

"Right now negotiations are taking place, almost on a daily basis. We think we will have an agreement soon," Faizi said.

Afghanistan, which earlier had sought a blanket ban on the night raids by foreign troops, says it is ready to consider them as long as they are "Afghanized" or conducted by Afghan forces and in accordance with the laws of the country.

"You just can't have a situation where a bunch of people land up somebody's house, break open the door and go in," Faizi said.

The United States says the night raids are a key element in the fight against the Taliban who it says operate in many parts of the country from within population centers.

(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

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