Afghanistan-U.S. reach draft security agreement

Reuters

* Agreement reached on vital draft of security pact

* Afghan elders frustrated by last-minute negotiations

* Washington rejects notion of "apology letter" (Recasts with draft agreement, Kerry remarks)

By Hamid Shalizi and Arshad Mohammed

KABUL/WASHINGTON, Nov 20 (Reuters) - The United States andAfghanistan on Wednesday reached a draft agreement on a crucialsecurity pact, a day before thousands of Afghan elders are setto debate whether to allow U.S. troops to stay in the countryafter 2014.

Without the accord, the United States has warned it couldwithdraw its troops by the end of next year and leave Afghanforces to fight a Taliban-led insurgency without their help.

Thousands of Afghan dignitaries and elders are due toconvene in a giant tent in the capital Kabul on Thursday todebate the fate of U.S. forces after a 2014 drawdown of amultinational NATO force.

"We have reached an agreement as to the final language ofthe bilateral security agreement that will be placed before theLoya Jirga tomorrow," Kerry told reporters.

Intense negotiations between Kabul and Washington haveprovoked frustration among the Afghan tribal and politicalelders who made perilous journeys from all over the country tothe capital Kabul for a grand assembly to debate the pact.

Efforts to finalise the pact stalled on Tuesday amiddisagreement over whether U.S. President Barack Obama had agreedto issue a letter acknowledging mistakes made during the 12-yearAfghan war.

Kerry denied there had been any discussion about thepossibility of a U.S. apology to Afghanistan for U.S. mistakesor Afghan civilian casualties during the 12-year U.S. militarypresence in Afghanistan. Such an apology would draw widespreadanger in the United States.

"The important thing for people to understand is there hasnever been a discussion of or the word 'apology' used in ourdiscussions whatsoever," Kerry said, adding that AfghanPresident Hamid Karzai had also not asked for an apology.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the possibilityof a letter, or some other kind of correspondence, would seek toreassure the Loya Jirga of the importance of the U.S.-Afghanrelationship and to address concerns over civilian casualties.

The Afghan government said it had received assurances thatan Obama letter would be provided this week to the grand councilof Afghan elders, known as a Loya Jirga.

But Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, insistedon Tuesday that an apology was "not on the table."

NATIONAL INTERESTS

The drawdown of Western troops has allowed tentative peaceovertures between Kabul and the Taliban to gather pace, andAfghan officials arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday to initiatetalks.

The Taliban have nonetheless condemned the Loya Jirga as afarce, and security has been tight in Kabul following a suicidebomb attack near the assembly ground over the weekend.

Insurgents fired two rockets at the tent where the last LoyaJirga was last held in 2011, but missed the delegates.

If the two sides cannot agree on a pact, Karzai hassuggested submitting different versions of the document for theLoya Jirga to decide on. That caused confusion among Jirgamembers.

Khan Ali Rotman, who runs a Kabul youth organisation, saidif the pact was not in Afghanistan's national interests, "wewill raise our voice and not vote for it".

But a Kabul senator, Khan Mohammad Belaghi, said Afghanistanhad no choice but to sign:

"We have to have a partnership with a country like theUnited States and we will vote in favour of it because it canprotect us from threats from neighbouring countries, especiallyPakistan, and the Taliban."

Violence spiralled on the eve of the meeting, with theTaliban attacking two high-ranking police officials.

Gunmen ambushed and killed the police chief of Marjadistrict in the southern province of Helmand on his way to work,said Omar Zwak, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

Also in the south, guards shot dead a suicide bomber tryingto force his way inside the house of the Kandahar provincialpolice chief, said Hamid Zia Durrani, a spokesman for thepolice. Later a bomb exploded at a hotel a few doors away,killing three and wounding 14, he said. (Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni, Katharine Houreld inKabul and Sarwar Amani in Kandahar, and Dylan Welch inIslamabad; writing by Maria Golovnina and Lesley Wroughton;editing by Ralph Boulton and Jackie Frank)

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