Key US-Afghan security deal faltering

ON EDGE::If the pact is not signed, all US troops must leave next year, but Kabul is not budging on some issues and Karzai is ready to walk away if Afghan interests are not met

AP and AFP, WASHINGTON and KABUL

Wed, Oct 09, 2013 - Page 6

A security deal to allow some US troops to stay in Afghanistan to fight al-Qaeda was at risk of collapse yesterday after Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he was prepared to walk away from negotiations.

The US has pushed for the bilateral security pact (BSA) to be signed by the end of this month so that the US-led NATO military coalition can schedule its withdrawal of 87,000 troops by the end of next year.

However, Karzai said he refused to be rushed into signing the deal, and would first seek approval from a traditional grand assembly to be convened in a month’s time.

“The agreement has to suit Afghanistan’s interests and purposes. If it doesn’t suit us and if it doesn’t suit them, then naturally we will go separate ways,” Karzai said in a BBC interview in Kabul.

According to the Afghan government, talks ground to a halt over US demands for the right to conduct unilateral military operations after next year, and on how the US would pledge to protect Afghanistan.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week described the deal as “critically important” and said he hoped it would be signed by the end of the month.

The collapse of a similar agreement with Iraq in 2011 led to the US pulling all its troops out of the country, which is currently suffering its worst sectarian violence since 2008.

However, Kabul has dismissed the possibility that the US may enact the “zero option” of a complete pull-out.

US and Afghan negotiators held their latest round of talks on Monday, focusing their attention on two sticking points.

Afghanistan wants US guarantees against future foreign intervention, a veiled reference to neighboring Pakistan.

Kabul accuses its neighbor of harboring the Taliban and other extremists who enter Afghanistan and then cross back into Pakistan, where they cannot be attacked by Afghan or US-led international forces.

The second sticking point is the role and conduct of the counterterrorism force the US wants to leave behind.

“The United States and its allies, NATO, continue to demand even after signing the BSA they will have the freedom to attack our people, our villages,” Karzai said on Monday.

Karzai’s outburst came in response to a question about a NATO air strike on Friday last week in Nangarhar Province.

The US-led coalition said its forces struck insurgents trying to attack the base and that no civilians were harmed, but Kabul claims five civilians were killed.

After Karzai’s comments, Washington said it remained committed to talks and urged Kabul to stay focused on concluding the deal.

US President Barack Obama this week said he would consider a limited US mission after this year only if the Afghan government “was willing to work with us in a cooperative way that would protect our troops.”

The US 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 US troops would have to leave by Dec. 31 next year and it is unlikely that NATO or any of its allies will keep troops there either.