Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US Secretary of State John Kerry held a second day of talks in Kabul yesterday after making progress over a long-delayed deal on the future of US forces in Afghanistan.
Karzai said this week that he was prepared to walk away from negotiations on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would allow some US troops to stay in the country after next year.
However, the US has pressed for the pact to be signed within weeks so that the US-led NATO military coalition can schedule its withdrawal of 87,000 combat troops by December next year.
“The tone was constructive throughout the entire conversation,” a US official told reporters after meetings late on Friday. “It is fair to say that the differences that exist were narrowed on the vast of majority of the outstanding issues.”
Karzai’s spokesman also said negotiations had advanced, though a joint press conference yesterday was delayed for several hours as the talks were extended.
The Afghan leader has previously said the sticking points were US demands for the right to conduct unilateral military operations against militants, and on how the US would pledge to protect Afghanistan.
The talks between Kerry and Karzai came as the US said it had captured a senior leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Latif Mehsud, who is being held in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.
The Washington Post reported Mehsud was seen by Afghanistan as a possible go-between in the struggling peace efforts between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban.
Karzai has said he refuses to be rushed into signing any BSA deal, and would first seek approval from a traditional grand assembly of tribal leaders to be convened in about month’s time.
The agreement would see a few thousand US troops remain in Afghanistan to train local forces and target al-Qaeda remnants.
Afghan officials dismiss the possibility that the US may enact the “zero option” of a complete pull-out after its soldiers have fought the Taliban since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
The Afghan leader has had a tempestuous relationship with the US and other foreign allies since he came to power in 2001, often sparking outrage with his criticism of international military efforts to thwart the Taliban insurgents.
“The entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life and no gains,” he said this week.
A credible election is seen as the key test of Afghanistan’s stability as NATO troops withdraw, and Kerry was also due to discuss issues such as voter registration and security with the president.
Karzai officially suspended BSA talks in June in a furious reaction to the Taliban opening a liaison office in Qatar that was presented as an embassy for a government in waiting.
The Taliban regime was driven from power by a US-led coalition in 2001 for sheltering the al-Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Since then the Islamist rebels have fought a bloody insurgency, and both the US and Afghan governments now back peace talks to end the conflict.
Kerry was to travel to Paris yesterday and then to London.