The Afghan government says protracted negotiations over a crucial security agreement with the United States have advanced to a new stage, raising hopes that a deal can be struck before the fast-approaching October deadline set by Washington.
Afghan and American negotiators have tried in vain for more than a year to hammer out the details of a bilateral security agreement that would provide a framework for U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan after NATO's combat mission ends in late 2014.
To break the deadlock, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has lined up a new team of high-profile negotiators. On August 20, the Afghan Foreign Ministry announced that Karzai had tasked his national security adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadizai, and Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul to accelerate talks and finalize a deal.
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham and U.S. General Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, have taken up their positions on the other side of the negotiating table.
A working draft has already been hashed out by the two sides. But negotiations are expected to move up a gear.
The bilateral security agreement and accompanying Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) will define the role and shape of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, as well as the legal status of U.S. special forces and civilian trainers.
Major Sticking Points
Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that technical issues the United States needs resolved to operate militarily in Afghanistan have been resolved. These include taxation, visas, what bases and facilities in Afghanistan the United States will use, transit routes, and rights over Afghan airspace.
He says Afghan and American negotiators will now look to agree on larger and more contentious issues where major sticking points remain.
"Defending Afghanistan from foreign aggression is one of our key demands," Faizi says. "There are also other issues where disagreement remains. When talks resume again, these two negotiating teams will discuss these issues until there is agreement."
Negotiations have taken place against a backdrop of mutual suspicion and worsening bilateral relations. Both sides entered the talks with a competing set of military priorities and legal concerns.
The long-term security deal is essential for Washington and Kabul because it would allow the United States to train and assist Afghan security forces so the latter can hold off the Taliban and maintain their own security after 2014. It would also allow the United States to pursue remnants of Al-Qaeda operating along Afghanistan's porous border with Pakistan.
'Zero Option' Possible
Without a deal, American officials and their NATO allies have said the "zero option" of leaving no troops behind is a very real possibility. Billions of dollars in promised aid to sustain Afghanistan's security forces and develop its fragile economy could be at risk.
Karzai suspended talks with the United States after the Taliban opened a diplomatic office in the Qatari capital, Doha, in June. Karzai protested
the presence of the Taliban's flag and banner at the office, saying the move violated Washington's promises about how the office would work.
Karzai has said negotiations over a security agreement with the United States would only resume when the reconciliation process with the Taliban is led by the Afghan government. Faizi did not say when he expected talks over the security document to formally resume, although informal negotiations have continued.
Faizi also said that the president would convene a Loya Jirga -- a grand assembly of tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders -- within two months, raising hopes of fast progress. Karzai has pledged to consult a Loya Jirga before ratifying any deal.
"If the two governments reach agreement, that's fine. But if they don't, then a Loya Jirga will be convened on why a deal wasn't struck," Faizi says. "If everything goes well then we will have a Loya Jirga in a month and a half or two months."
Until then, American and Afghan negotiators will have to navigate through tricky waters, as both sides have shown little willingness to make concessions.
The United States wants immunity from Afghan justice for U.S. service members serving in Afghanistan. Karzai has demanded that American troops answer to Afghan law.
Afghanistan wants Washington to guarantee its security. Kabul wants the U.S. military to intervene and defend the country from "foreign aggression," including cross-border incursions or artillery attacks on its territory from Pakistan. That guarantee, seen as a nonstarter by many, could compel the United States to retaliate against Taliban safe havens in Pakistan in the event of such attacks.
The Afghan government has also demanded assurances from Washington that it will pledge a multiyear financial commitment to sustain the country's security forces. But as with military assistance, Washington promises to seek funds on a yearly basis from the U.S. Congress for assistance to Afghanistan.