* Contradicts Kerry's statement of "one issue" outstanding
* Failure to reach a deal could prompt U.S. pullout
* Afghanistan not in a hurry, but optimistic - spokesman
* U.S. request for nine bases approved by government
By Hamid Shalizi and Jessica Donati
KABUL, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Afghanistan and the United Stateshave not yet agreed on several issues in a bilateral securitypact, a senior Afghan spokesman said, raising the prospect thatWashington could pull out all its troops from the war-ravagednation next year if the differences could not be ironed out.
Two years ago, the United States ended its military missionin Iraq with a similar "zero option" outcome after the failureof bilateral talks with Baghdad.
For almost a year, Washington and Kabul have been seeking toconclude a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that will helpdetermine how many U.S. soldiers and bases remain in Afghanistanafter most foreign combat troops exit by the end of next year.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at the endof a visit to Kabul this month that there was just one issueoutstanding - Washington's demand that its troops be immune fromAfghan law and tried in the United States instead.
But the issue was not even raised in the two days Kerry wasin Kabul, said Aimal Faizi, the spokesman for Afghan PresidentHamid Karzai.
He said there were also a number of other areas which thetwo countries have yet to agree on. "A lot of progress has beenmade on the document, but it is not finalised," Faizi toldReuters in an interview at the presidential palace.
"If we do not reach a final agreement on this draft, it willgo to the Loya Jirga and the Afghan people will be able to lookat the issues remaining." Faizi said. "If it's unfinished, itmeans that there are some areas even the two governments havenot yet reached an agreement on."
The Loya Jirga, an assembly of Afghanistan's tribal elders,is to meet in November to discuss the security agreement.
However, U.S. President Barack Obama' administration regardsthe language that Kerry and Karzai hammered out in a weekend ofmarathon talks to be essentially the final version that will beput before the Loya Jirga for its approval.
"The text that will be presented to the Loya Jirga is whatwe left Afghanistan with on Saturday (Oct. 12)," U.S. StateDepartment spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters last week.
U.S. officials are increasingly impatient to conclude thedeal because they need time to implement plans for 2015.Washington wanted an agreement by the summer and most recentlyset an Oct. 31 deadline, but there is now no chance of a finalagreement before late November. The Obama administration has yetto set a new deadline.
Faizi said both countries needed the deal but Afghanistanwas in no rush to sign the pact.
"The president has said this previously. We are not in ahurry to sign this document, if not finalised, this couldcontinue with the next government," he said.
"There are some key issues still remaining but it is notreally a lot of work," he added, indicating a deal could bereached with Karzai before presidential elections scheduled forApril. Karzai cannot run for re-election because he has alreadyserved the maximum two terms.
Adding to pressure to avoid major delays, Washington hasmade clear that it opposes the idea of waiting to finalize thepact with Karzai's successor and that U.S. patience is notwithout limits. "It remains our goal to conclude it as soon aswe can," a U.S. official said.
The United States has said the deal would collapse if U.S.soldiers were not granted immunity from the Afghan judicialprocess.
U.S. officials insist that a security agreement is in bothcountries' interest but say the Obama administration is notbluffing about resorting to the "zero option" - as it did inIraq two years ago - if any residual American troops are notgranted immunity from Afghan prosecution.
Other outstanding differences include the thorny issue ofunilateral U.S. military operations which have long infuriatedKarzai. He has said such action violates Afghan sovereignty aswell as previous agreements and inflicts terrible casualtieson civilians.
While progress had been made in this area, Faizi said it remained unresolved. Afghanistan is refusing to let theUnited States take unilateral military action even inretaliation against an attack.
"The Afghan government, as the host country, will takeaction," Faizi said. "The U.S. will not have the right toretaliate unilaterally if U.S. forces or bases are attacked. Weare against all kinds of unilateral military operations."
Other issues included the ways in which the United Stateswould continue to build and equip the Afghan security forces,and how many bases the U.S. will be allowed to retain.
"We have the U.S. asking for nine military bases, to whichthe government of Afghanistan has agreed. So now, it is up tothe people in the Loya Jirga to decide if they want less ormore," Faizi said.
Differences over a crucial issue that had previously stalledtalks had however been resolved, Faizi said.
Afghanistan had been requesting a guarantee of protectionfrom external aggression, something the U.S. had been reluctantto agree to as it could require offensive action against anotherally, neighbouring Pakistan.
"The definition that we have for aggression - which bothsides have agreed on - is much better than before ... We can saythat we reached a kind of agreement," Faizi said.
U.S. officials said Kerry and Karzai had resolveddifferences over the wording of the guarantee but offered only avague explanation of what had been agreed.
"The Bilateral Security Agreement is clearly something thatstopped short of a mutual defence pact," a senior administrationofficial said last week. "And the language that we found, Ithink, is sufficient to both parties in terms of notoverreaching the bounds of what can be."
With U.S. officials largely optimistic about the chancesthat the security pact will win approval from the Loya Jirga,Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Monday that progresstoward an agreement was "on track" and "not behind schedule."
However, Washington is concerned that as campaigning for theAfghan election intensifies, it will be harder to broker a deal.
The election is considered the most crucial since theU.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, which brought Karzaito power. The NATO-led force in Afghanistan is hoping for acredible handover before most troops are pulled out at the endof next year.
- Politics & Government
- Foreign Policy
- Loya Jirga
- security agreement
- John Kerry