KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry extended talks Saturday with President Hamid Karzai on a bilateral security agreement with the United States, and while work remains to be done a deal could be struck by the end of the day, a presidential spokesman said.
Aimal Faizi said some contentious issues remain to be finalized. Talks that began a year ago have been deadlocked over sovereignty issues and the safety of Afghan citizens at the hands of American and allied troops.
“There is still some work to do on the document. Things are not yet finalized. It will be concluded hopefully this evening. Although it is not certain,” Faizi said.
U.S. officials said it was hoped that the talks will reach an agreement in principle whose details can be finalized later.
“Secretary Kerry sees an opening to continue making headway on issues including security and sovereignty this evening and wants to leave Kabul with as many issues resolved as possible to set up conditions for finalizing an agreement,” said one U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the negotiations so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kerry told U.S. Embassy staff after the meetings recessed that “we’ve had a terrific day.”
“We’re going back to the palace to enjoy dinner with the president and more importantly we’re going to see if we can make a little more progress, which is what we have been trying to do all day long,” he added.
“If this thing can come together, this will put the Taliban on their heels,” he added. “This will send a message to the community of nations that Afghanistan’s future is being defined in a way that is achievable.”
Kerry began negotiations with Karzai in the morning, the second day of talks after he arrived late Friday. The U.S. wants a deal by the end of the month, while Karzai wants assurances over sovereignty that have deadlocked negotiations in the past year.
Kerry is no stranger to marathon negotiations with Karzai.
In October 2009, when Kerry was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and on a visit to Afghanistan, he managed to broker an agreement for Karzai to accept a runoff presidential election after a U.N. election commission threw out one third of his votes claiming massive fraud. Kerry spent four days convincing Karzai to accept the runoff, which was later cancelled when the runner up quit the race. Karzai was re-elected for a second and final presidential term.
Kerry’s unannounced overnight visit to Kabul comes as talks foundered. Discussions have repeatedly stalled in recent weeks over Karzai’s demand for American guarantees against future foreign intervention from countries like Pakistan, and U.S. demands for any post-2014 residual force to be able to conduct counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
The situation deteriorated in the past week following a series of angry comments from Karzai that the United States and NATO were repeatedly violating Afghanistan’s sovereignty and inflicting suffering on its people.
Another possible reason for the outburst could have been the capture in eastern Afghanistan of senior Pakistani Taliban commander Latif Mehsud by U.S. forces on Oct. 5, the same day Kerry and Karzai last spoke. Karzai saw the move as an infringement on Afghan sovereignty.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Meshud’s group had claimed responsibility for the 2010 bombing attempt in Times Square and said they would carry out future attacks.
Mehsud is a senior deputy to Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. The Pakistani Taliban has waged a decade-long insurgency against Islamabad from sanctuaries along the Afghan border and also helped the Afghan Taliban in their war against U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan.
Karzai wants America to guarantee such cross-border militant activity won’t occur and has demanded guarantees the U.S. will defend Afghanistan against foreign intervention, an allusion to neighboring Pakistan. Afghanistan accuses its neighbor of harboring the Taliban and other extremists who enter Afghanistan and then cross back into Pakistan where they cannot be attacked by Afghan or U.S.-led international forces.
In one such attack Saturday, insurgents killed one civilian and two police officers in a suicide car bombing in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
The agreement is necessary to give the U.S. a legal basis for having forces in Afghanistan after the end of 2014 and also allow it to lease bases around the country. It would be an executive agreement, meaning the U.S. Senate would not have to ratify it.
There currently are an estimated 87,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including about 52,000 Americans. That number will be halved by February and all foreign combat troops will be gone by the end of next year.
The U.S. wants to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country to go after the remnants of al-Qaida, but if no agreement is signed, all U.S. troops would have to leave by Dec. 31, 2014. President Barack Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press he would be comfortable with a full pullout of U.S. troops.
Karzai is calling a meeting of Afghan tribal elders in November to advise him on whether to sign a security deal.
If they endorse the agreement, then Karzai has political cover to agree to it. He is keenly aware that previous leaders of his country historically have been punished for selling out to foreign interests and wants to make sure that any U.S.-Afghan agreement is not seen in that light.
Associated Press writer Patrick Quinn contributed to this report.