John Kerry leaving Malaysia for Afghanistan on Friday.Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters/Pool
Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai narrowed differences during initial talks about terms for a future U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, a U.S. official said after the two met Friday.
Washington says talks have stumbled over two issues that have become deal breakers for Kabul: One is a U.S. request to run independent counter-terrorism missions on Afghan territory, which have long infuriated Karzai. The Afghans instead want the U.S. to pass on information and let them handle the action. The second sticking point is a U.S. refusal to guarantee protection from foreign forces as it could lead to offensive action against another ally, neighboring Pakistan.
And though Washington is eyeing a deal by the end of October, Karzai has declared it can wait until after presidential elections in April next year, further straining what has become a rocky relationship between the allies.
Still, a senior State Department official, who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, appears optimistic that progress has been made.
"The differences that existed coming in were narrowed on the vast majority of the outstanding issues," the official said.
The official also said Kerry and Karzai will meet again Saturday but declined to say whether enough progress was made to strike a deal on the Bilateral Security Agreement by the end of this month.
The pact will determine the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after most are withdrawn in 2014. Failure to reach a deal could prompt Washington to pull out all of its forces at the end of 2014, an outcome known as the "zero option."
The official described the talks as candid but constructive.
Karzai, for example, raised with Kerry the recent capture by U.S. forces of Latif Mehsud, a senior commander with the Pakistani Taliban, the official added. "At no point during the conversation did the tone veer in the direction of being sharp on either side."
Their talks at Karzai's presidential palace lasted about three hours and included a 10-minute private conversation, the official said. Kerry was joined by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, and General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. general to Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said earlier Kerry did not intend to close a deal on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) during the visit.
"This is really about us building momentum for the negotiators and helping establish conditions for success of the negotiations going forward," another State Department official told reporters.