US-Afghan deal edges closer despite `immunity` snag

President Hamid Karzai and US Secretary of State John Kerry said today that talks on the future of US forces in Afghanistan were stuck on the key issue of US troop immunity.

Kabul: A long-delayed security deal on the future of US forces in Afghanistan is close to being completed, officials said today, after marathon talks in Kabul between President Hamid Karzai and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Both sides said that the issue of US troop immunity remained a sticking pointing after intense efforts to hammer out a deal that would allow between 5,000 and 10,000 US soldiers to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

US officials travelling with Kerry said that only details of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) had not been agreed, and that the US and Afghan teams would now review the draft document.

"From our vantage, (the visit was) positive in that we reached a basic agreement on all of the key issues," a senior US official told reporters as Kerry flew out of Kabul for London.

"The language also provides what we need in terms of assurances and guarantees for rights of self-defence, for force protection, and the jurisdiction issues."

Both Kerry and Karzai said at a press conference late yesterday that the issue of jurisdiction -- or "troop immunity" -- had not been solved, but US officials gave an upbeat assessment on the chances of the pact being signed.

"Overall, the text, we believe, is in a good place," one official told reporters.
At the press conference, Karzai said a national assembly of tribal elders would be called to discuss whether foreign soldiers could be given immunity from prosecution in Afghanistan.

Kerry said that without the issue being resolved "unfortunately there cannot be a bilateral security agreement."
US troops still in Afghanistan after 2014 will help fight Al-Qaeda remnants and train the national army.

"The language of the agreement as it stands right now provides what we need for both of those missions," the US official said after Kerry delayed his flight to Europe for about 12-hours as the talks were repeatedly extended.

A similar US security agreement with Iraq in 2011 collapsed over the issue of troop immunity and the US pulled its troops out of the country, which is now suffering its worst sectarian violence since 2008.

But Afghan officials have always dismissed the possibility that the US may enact the "zero option" of a complete pull-out after its soldiers have fought the Taliban militants since 2001.
The US wants the security deal signed by October 31 to enable the NATO military coalition to plan its withdrawal of 87,000 combat troops from Afghanistan by December 2014, but Karzai had threatened to walk away from talks.