Secretary of State John Kerry stopped in Kabul today for talks with Afghan president Hamid Karzai in an attempt to push along the stalled security negotiations between the two countries, which hinge around allowing American troops to stay past their December 2014 withdrawal deadline.
While negotiations over the deal have been trudging along since 2012, talks recently sputtered over Karzai’s demands that it place limits on US counterterror operations in his country after 2014. But at the conclusion of their meeting on Friday, the duo said that they would meet again on Saturday before Kerry leaves for Paris and London.
President Obama has told Karzai that if an agreement is not reached by Oct. 31, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of next year.
A senior State Department official told reporters on Friday that a deal “is both preferable and doable” but “the ball remains, of course, in the Afghans’ court, but that’s the reason why we’re going on this trip.”
Adding to the pressure is the fact that Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election next spring, and president Karzai is legally barred from running again.
While any deal will have to get done well before the election, “as the Afghan political establishment shifts into election mode, it’s going to be more difficult for them to focus on getting to a resolution of these issues,” the official said, “so we’d like to bring them to a close before we get to that point.”
The officials stressed that Secretary Kerry doesn’t expect to wrap up the negotiations during his visit, but flew to Kabul after an Oct. 5 phone conversation with Karzai. He hopes to inject new urgency into the talks that hit their deadline in 20 days.
In an Oct. 8 interview with the BBC, Karzai said that NATO involvement in Afghanistan has caused “a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure.”
He added that “the agreement has to suit Afghanistan’s interests and purposes,” and “if it doesn’t suit us and if it doesn’t suit them then naturally we will go separate ways.”
The potential Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) would not be a treaty so would not have to be ratified by the US Senate, but it would allow the United States to lease bases in Afghanistan in order to continue its training and advising mission with the Afghan security forces.
The main sticking points to getting the deal done revolve around Afghan concerns over what kind of counterterrorism force the U.S. wants to leave behind, and Kabul’s concerns over Americans killing Afghan citizens.
President Obama has said that he is open to leaving an unspecified number of troops and special operations forces behind after 2014, which officials in the Pentagon have put at about 10,000.
The State Department official said that “we have articulated clearly two missions post-2014 that we have decided are in the United States national interest, and those are: training and assisting the Afghan army, and the counterterrorism mission against al-Qaida.” The BSA must address those issues, the official said.