KABUL — With talks on keeping US forces in Afghanistan beyond next year deadlocked, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul on Friday to try to break the impasse and head off a full US withdrawal from the country.
Kerry was counting on his relatively good relationship with President Hamid Karzai to push through the two remaining sticking points in the talks on a long-term security deal that would allow US forces to remain here after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014.
But with neither Afghan nor US officials showing much willingness to compromise, a senior Western diplomat put the odds of a deal at “no better than 50-50.”
Senior officials on both sides expressed confidence over the summer that a deal would get done, and US generals spoke of staying on after 2014 as an inevitability. But the talks hit a wall, and both Karzai and President Obama have signaled in recent weeks that they are willing to walk away, if necessary.
Most of the issues that officials were most concerned about when talks began a year ago have been settled. The matter of legal immunity for US troops, which derailed similar talks with Iraq in 2011, is already resolved, for instance.
Instead, the two sides now find themselves struggling to bridge the divide on a pair of demands that Karzai says must be met, and that the Obama administration says it cannot or will not consider.
The first is Karzai’s insistence that the United States guarantee Afghanistan’s security as it would if the country were a NATO ally.
That could compel the United States to send troops on raids into Pakistan, an ally of Washington and a nuclear-armed power.
The Afghan leader is also refusing to allow US forces to continue hunting for operatives of Al Qaeda here. Instead, he wants any intelligence gathered by the United States handed over to Afghan forces, who could then conduct the raids on their own.
If the Americans are unwilling to meet both conditions, “they can leave,” Karzai told the BBC in an interview this week.
The Obama administration has made it clear that it may do just that. US officials have set an Oct. 31 deadline for striking a deal to keep troops here.
Though administration officials say the deadline is not “hard,” they also say the White House wants a deal worked out in principle in the coming weeks or it will cut off talks and begin preparing for what has become known as the zero option.
The pullout would be along the lines of what took place in Iraq, but the consequences for Afghanistan could be far more troubling. Afghanistan’s economy is anemic, and the government depends on the international community to pay almost 80 percent of its expenses.
The Taliban, meanwhile, remain a far more organized and potent threat than any Iraqi insurgent group was when US forces were forced to leave the Middle Eastern country at the end of 2011 after US and Iraqi officials failed to strike a deal that would have allowed them to stay on.
If the Americans are unwilling to meet both his conditions, ‘they can leave,’ Karzai told the BBC this week.
If a deal is reached, Karzai has said he will need to hold a Loya Jirga — a traditional gathering of elders and other powerful people — to approve the pact.
Such a meeting is planned within the next four or five weeks, Afghan officials said.