Walter Pincus was the guy at the Washington Post known for writing skeptical stories about the Iraq debacle that wound up on page A17. He still gets that level of respect today, even when he’s got better information than anyone else. In this case, Pincus advances the story of permanent bases in Afghanistan (I’m calling them permanent bases, even if they end up being “joint bases” in the end), by taking a look at the construction contracts:

The United States may be planning to reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan over the next three years, but new construction contracts at Bagram Air Field serve as a reminder that current plans call for a significant continuing American military presence there.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $14.2 million contract to a Turkish company to construct an eight-building barracks complex for troops. The facility is expected to house more than 1,200 personnel, and it’s not scheduled to be completed until the fall of 2013, one year before the Afghan army is scheduled to take over security across the country.

Other Bagram construction projects have either just been completed, or are still being lined up.

In March, construction was completed on an $18 million two-bay hangar for C-130 transport planes at Bagram, almost two years after it was begun. The hangar is approximately 60,000 square feet.

This is simply not the kind of building you do when you’re preparing to leave.

It’s possible to believe, as I do, that the announcement on troop withdrawals heralds a change in mission toward more of a counter-terrorism approach than a nation-building approach. It’s possible to believe that the US wants a peace deal between the Karzai government and the Taliban in place, as a precursor to an exit.

But none of that is incompatible with setting up a permanent base structure, a place from which to launch counter-terrorism attacks in places like Pakistan. Indeed, the idea that the US had to leave Afghanistan completely, as a precursor to any talks with the Taliban, has been dropped:

“Negotiations have begun, and the Taliban have shown interest,” said Waheed Mujda, who was a government official during the Taliban regime and maintains contact with Taliban leaders. “In the past, the Taliban has insisted that unless the United States leaves Afghanistan, it will never come to the negotiating table. But now it seems that problem has been solved, and that important condition has been set aside.”

It’s possible that the bases are being built up to increase capacity on quick strikes against the Taliban inside Afghanistan, as a means to bomb them to the bargaining table, which has been the clear strategy of late. But the plans do appear to be made for a post-reconciliation world, with the US in a prime position for regional covert ops.