Kerry, Karzai narrowing differences over security deal

Reuters

* Kerry makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan

* U.S. hoping for security deal by end-October

* Karzai says deal can wait until after April vote

By Lesley Wroughton

KABUL, Oct 11 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerryand Afghan President Hamid Karzai narrowed differences ininitial talks on Friday on terms for a future U.S. militarypresence in Afghanistan after 2014, a U.S. official said.

Washington says it wants a deal done by the end of Octoberbut talks have stumbled over two issues that have become dealbreakers for Kabul. Karzai has declared it can wait until afterpresidential elections in April next year, further strainingwhat has become a rocky relationship between the allies.

"The differences that existed coming in were narrowed on thevast majority of the outstanding issues," a senior StateDepartment official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said Kerry and Karzai will meet again onSaturday but declined to say whether enough progress was made tostrike a deal on the Bilateral Security Agreement by the end ofthis month.

The pact will determine the presence of U.S. forces inAfghanistan after most are withdrawn in 2014. Failure to reach adeal could prompt Washington to pull out all of its forces atthe end of 2014, an outcome known as the "zero option".

The talks over the pact have stalled over two points.

One is a U.S. request to run independent counter-terrorismmissions on Afghan territory, which have long infuriated Karzai.The Afghans instead want the United States to pass oninformation and let them handle the action.

The second sticking point is a U.S. refusal to guaranteeprotection from foreign forces as it could lead to offensiveaction against another ally, neighbouring Pakistan.

The official described the talks as candid but constructive,covering areas where differences exist including demands byAfghanistan for more access to U.S. intelligence.

Karzai raised with Kerry the recent capture by U.S. forcesof Latif Mehsud, a senior commander with the Pakistani Taliban, the official added. "At no point during the conversation did thetone veer in the direction of being sharp on either side."

Their talks at Karzai's presidential palace lasted aboutthree hours and included a 10-minute private conversation, theofficial said. Kerry was joined by the U.S. ambassador toAfghanistan, James Cunningham, and General Joseph Dunford, thetop U.S. general to Afghanistan.

SECURITY NEEDS

U.S. officials said earlier Kerry did not intend to close adeal on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) during the visit.

"This is really about us building momentum for thenegotiators and helping establish conditions for success of thenegotiations going forward," another State Department officialtold reporters.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the WhiteHouse was increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-termpartnership with Afghanistan. While the Pentagon has pleaded forpatience, the rest of the administration was fed up with Karzaiand sees Afghanistan as a fading priority, the newspaper said.

"The Afghans' primary goal with the BSA is to come up withan agreement that meets their security needs, and we fullybelieve that what's on the table right now would do that," theState Department official said.

The collapse of similar talks between the United States andIraq in 2011 - triggered partly by Baghdad's refusal to provideimmunity to U.S. soldiers serving there - led to the UnitedStates pulling its troops out of the country.

Washington is concerned that as Afghan election campaigningintensifies it will be harder to broker a deal. Indeed, Karzai'sbrothers this week began their campaign to take power and planto offer the outgoing president, who is constitutionally barredfrom running again, a position in their government.

The election is considered the most crucial since theU.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, which brought Karzaito power, and an opportunity to push the country away from yearsof damaging allegations of corruption and maladministration.

"It's going to be more difficult for them to focus ongetting to a resolution of these issues, so we'd like to bringthem to a close before we get to that point," the U.S. officialsaid.

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