U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry extended his trip to Afghanistan to hold a late-night round of talks with President Hamid Karzai as they neared an agreement to keep some American troops in the war-torn country after 2014.
The two leaders have held two rounds of talks since Kerry arrived in Kabul yesterday on a visit that wasn’t announced in advance for security reasons. President Barack Obama had set an Oct. 31 deadline to reach an agreement that would keep a limited U.S. military force in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism operations after next year, when combat troops are set to be withdrawn.
“We’re going to see if we can make a little more progress, which is what we’ve been trying to do all day long,” Kerry told staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul during a break in the meetings before dinner. “If this thing can come together, this will put the Taliban on their heels.”
The pact would help ensure stability as Afghanistan moves toward providing its own security more than a decade after the U.S. invaded to oust the Taliban regime that had provided a haven for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as he helped plan the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.
A secure environment is key for Afghan leaders to attract aid from donors after the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization withdraw combat forces. Aid accounts for more than 95 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Karzai hopes to reach a conclusion after the third round of talks in Kabul tonight, Aimal Faizi, his chief spokesman, told reporters at the Afghan Presidential Palace. Outstanding issues include measures to prevent civilian casualties by any NATO forces that may remain, U.S. protection for Afghanistan if another country attacks and jurisdiction over American troops who may commit crimes in Afghanistan, he said.
“I cannot go into details because the negotiations are still going on some very critical and important details,” Faizi said. “Therefore, we had better wait.”
Kerry sees an opening for further progress on issues such as security and sovereignty, and wants to leave Kabul with as many issues resolved as possible, according to a State Department official, who asked not to be identified because the talks were private. Kerry and Karzai met one-on-one for the last 30 minutes of talks that went on for more than three hours so far today, the official said. It’s unclear how long Kerry will stay in Afghanistan.
Karzai said this week that any agreement must be approved by a Loya Jirga, a traditional gathering that brings together provincial and ethnic representatives. The meeting, which some Afghan lawmakers oppose because they say it undermines elected representatives, will take place next month in Kabul, he said.
“If our national sovereignty is not respected, and the people of Afghanistan do not feel safe, then the agreement is meaningless,” Karzai said in a statement on Oct. 8.
Obama is willing to have U.S. troops conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and provide training and assistance for Afghan security forces after 2014 if a deal legally safeguards American forces. The failure of similar talks with Iraq, which broke down on the issue of legal immunity for U.S. troops, led to a total withdrawal of American forces in 2011 that has been followed by growing al-Qaeda attacks and sectarian violence.
The U.S. now has about 52,000 troops in Afghanistan, down 14,000 in the past six months under a plan to reach 34,000 by February and to have forces out by the end of 2014. Obama, whose priority has been to end major U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan after more than a decade, hasn’t set a force level under a post-2014 accord.
The agreement is particularly important for Afghanistan to assure continued international financial support and signal to neighbors that it’s wise to back the government instead of hedging their bets by supporting insurgents, according to Shahmahmood Miakhel, Afghan country director for the Washington-based United States Institute for Peace.
Sticking points in the negotiations have included U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and a security guarantee for the nation against Pakistan, its nuclear-armed neighbor from which militants conduct cross-border attacks.
The U.S.’s seizure of Latif Mehsud, a top leader of the Pakistani Taliban, dealt a blow to Karzai’s efforts to hold talks with the insurgent group, Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, a senior official of the council formed by Karzai in 2011 to facilitate talks with militants, said by phone today.
U.S. forces last week captured Mehsud in Afghanistan’s eastern Logar province while he drove on a main highway that connects with Kabul, Arsala Jamal, the province’s governor, said by phone today.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, confirmed to reporters in Washington D.C. yesterday that U.S. military forces had captured Mehsud, a senior commander of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, which she said claimed responsibility for an attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010 and attacks on U.S. diplomats in Pakistan.
Karzai has attempted to hold peace talks with the Taliban in a bid to convince the group to join the political process before elections next year. The group has vowed to disrupt the vote to pick the successor to Karzai, who can’t stand again due to term limits.
Civilian casualties from Afghanistan’s conflict with Taliban guerrillas jumped by almost a quarter in the first half of this year, according to the United Nations.