American and Afghan negotiators are scrambling to conclude a deal that would allow thousands of U.S. troops to remain in the country past their planned withdrawal at the end of next year, but the talks hit a snag yesterday with an emotional outburst from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Nearly a year of negotiations have so far failed to yield a deal and it is still possible that the two sides will never reach an agreement.
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The U.S. wants to keep as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to go after the remnants of al-Qaeda, but if no agreement is signed, all U.S. troops would have to leave by Dec. 31, 2014.
Roughly 95 per cent of the dozen-page agreement is complete and the rest is pencilled in until the two sides can agree on language, according to an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.
Both parties are seeking to finalize a deal by the end of October — a time frame that would give military planners enough time to prepare to keep troops in the country after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal.
U.S. and Afghan negotiators held their latest round of talks on Monday, focusing their attention on two sticking points — both tough issues that remain unresolved.
Afghanistan wants American guarantees against future foreign intervention, a veiled reference to neighbouring Pakistan. Afghanistan has accused its neighbour of harbouring 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.
The second sticking point is about the role and conduct of the counter-terrorism force the U.S. wants to leave behind.
"The United States and its allies, NATO, continue to demand even after signing the BSA [Bilateral Security Agreement] they will have the freedom to attack our people, our villages," Karzai said.
"The Afghan people will never allow it."
Karzai's outburst came in response to a question about a NATO airstrike on Oct. 5 in Nangarhar province, near an airport used by the U.S.-led international military force. The coalition, which has opened an investigation into the incident, said its forces struck insurgents trying to attack the base and that no civilians were harmed. The Karzai government claims five people were killed.
"They commit their violations against our sovereignty and conduct raids against our people, raids in the name of the fight on terrorism and in the name of the resolutions of the United Nations. This is against our wishes," Karzai said, using some of his harshest language to date against the U.S.-led military coalition.
Karzai said he will convene a council of elders in a month to help him make a decision on the pending agreement. If they endorse the agreement, then Karzai has political cover to agree to it.
The Afghan president 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 context.
Peace and security top priorities for Karzai
Karzai told the BBC in a televised interview aired Monday he was “willing to stand for anything that will bring peace to Afghanistan,” including offering the Taliban a seat at the bargaining table.
Karzai said his government is engaged in talks with Taliban leaders in his country and that he is open to a power-sharing deal.
He dismissed concerns that allowing the Taliban back into government would compromise progress, particularly with regard to women’s rights.
"I have no doubt that there will be more Afghan young girls and women studying and getting higher education and better job opportunities. Even if the Taliban come that will not end," Karzai told the BBC.
Karzai, who cannot run for a third term, is slated to step down by the end of 2014 — the same time nearly all international troops are to have left the country.
The Afghan president is keenly aware that previous leaders of his country historically have been punished for aligning with foreign interests and wants to make sure that any U.S.-Afghan agreement is not seen as selling out.
Talks were formally suspended in June and didn't resume until last month. But even during the suspension, informal discussions were held with U.S. negotiators travelling to the presidential palace for sessions that were several hours long.
The agreement would give the U.S. a legal basis for having forces in Afghanistan after 2014, and also allow it to lease bases around the country. If the U.S. does not sign the deal, it is unlikely that NATO or any of its allies will keep troops in Afghanistan. Germany has already indicated it will not commit the 800 soldiers it has promised if the U.S. deal is not signed.
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An estimated 87,000 international troops are in Afghanistan, including about 52,000 Americans.
U.S. President Barack Obama told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that he would consider keeping some American forces on the ground after the deployment formally ends next year, but acknowledged that doing so would require an agreement. He suggested that if no agreement can be reached, he would be comfortable with a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.