WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is optimistic that a U.S.-Afghan agreement over the future role of American troops in the country can be finalized in the next few weeks despite two main sticking points and President Hamid Karzai’s emotional outburst Monday alleging that the U.S. and NATO repeatedly violate Afghan sovereignty.
Nearly a year of negotiations have so far failed to yield a deal and it is still possible that the two sides will never reach an agreement.
The U.S. wants to keep as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to go after the remnants of al-Qaida, but if no agreement is signed, all U.S. troops would have to leave by Dec. 31, 2014.
Roughly 95 percent of the dozen-page agreement is complete and the rest is penciled in until the two sides can agree on language, according to an Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.
U.S. and Afghan negotiators held their latest round of talks on Monday, focusing their attention on two sticking points — both tough issues that remain unresolved.
Afghanistan wants American guarantees against future foreign intervention, a veiled reference to neighboring Pakistan. Afghanistan 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 U.S.-led international forces.
The second sticking point is about the role and conduct of the counterterrorism force the U.S. wants to leave behind.
“The United States and its allies, NATO, continue to demand even after signing the BSA (bilateral security agreement) they will have the freedom to attack our people, our villages,” Karzai said. “The Afghan people will never allow it.”
Karzai’s outburst came in response to a question about a NATO airstrike on Oct. 5 in Nangarhar province, near an airport used by U.S.-led international military coalition forces. The coalition, which has opened an investigation into the incident, said its forces struck insurgents trying to attack the base and that no civilians were harmed. The Karzai government claims five civilians were killed.
“They commit their violations against our sovereignty and conduct raids against our people, air raids and other attacks in the name of the fight on terrorism and in the name of the resolutions of the United Nations. This is against our wishes,” Karzai said, using some of his harshest language to date against the U.S.-led military coalition.
Both parties were seeking to finalize a deal by the end of October — a time frame that would give military planners enough time to prepare to keep troops in the country after the scheduled 2014 withdrawal.
Karzai said he will convene a council of elders in one month to help him make a decision on the pending agreement. If they endorse the agreement, then Karzai has political cover to agree to it.
The Afghan president is keenly aware that previous leaders of his country historically have been punished for selling out to foreign interests and wants to make sure that any U.S.-Afghan agreement is not seen in that context. Karzai, who cannot run for a third term, is slated to step down at the end of next year — the same time nearly all international troops are to have left the country.
Talks were formally suspended in June and didn’t resume until last month. But even during the suspension, informal discussions were held with U.S. negotiators traveling to the presidential palace for sessions that were several hours long.
The official said the United States can only go so far on some of the Afghan demands. For instance, the Afghan government had been asking that the dollar amount of future U.S. assistance be written into any agreement. But while Obama can promise to request financial backing for the country, he can’t legally promise that Congress will send the money. Any pact the two countries sign would be an executive agreement, not a treaty that would require the consent of Congress.
The agreement would give the U.S. a legal basis for having forces in Afghanistan after 2014, and also allow it to lease bases around the country. If the U.S. does not sign the deal, it is unlikely that NATO or any of its allies will keep troops in Afghanistan. Germany has already indicated it will not commit the 800 soldiers it has promised if the U.S. deal is not signed.
There currently are an estimated 87,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including about 52,000 Americans.
President Barack Obama told The Associated Press in an interview on Friday that he would consider keeping some American forces on the ground after the conflict formally ends next year, but acknowledged that doing so would require an agreement. He suggested that if no agreement can be reached, he would be comfortable with a full pullout of U.S. troops.
“If, in fact, we can get an agreement that makes sure that U.S. troops are protected, makes sure that we can operate in a way that is good for our national security, then I’ll certainly consider that,” Obama said. “If we can’t, we will continue to make sure that all the gains we’ve made in going after al-Qaida we accomplish, even if we don’t have any U.S. military on Afghan soil.”
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report. Quinn reported from Kabul.