KABUL — After more than a week of hard-line posturing by Afghan and US officials, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai defied expectations and hammered out key elements of a deal that, if finalized, would keep American troops in Afghanistan beyond next year.
Making the announcement Saturday evening after nearly 24 hours of talks and meetings, Kerry and Karzai said one major issue remained — legal jurisdiction, or immunity from prosecution under Afghan law, for American troops who remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
Immunity is a deal-breaking issue for the United States. The Iraqi government’s refusal to grant the same immunity was what forced US troops to withdraw from Iraq two years ago. Karzai suggested Saturday that he, too, was uncomfortable with it, saying as he stood alongside Kerry that “we don’t have a single view of judicial immunity for foreign forces.”
The matter, though, was ultimately beyond the authority of the government to decide, he said, and instead must be decided by “the Afghan people.”
By that, he meant a loya jirga — a traditional gathering of elders and other powerful people — that the Afghan government is organizing in coming weeks to approve the entire deal, known as a bilateral security agreement. It would then go before Parliament, he said.
Those steps are not insignificant, and American officials carefully avoided saying definitively that they had secured the deal or that it was now a matter of deciding how many troops would stay in Afghanistan after next year, not whether any would remain at all.
Kerry, at the joint news conference, said it was now a matter of letting the Afghan political process play out.
Karzai also gave some American officials reason for pause. He said he had not yet examined some of the “several small issues” in the security agreement.
The marathon negotiating session Saturday in Kabul, which began around midmorning and continued until well after dark, was a dramatic turn in talks that only a day earlier were deadlocked, and had left many officials on both sides saying there was a distinct possibility of a complete American withdrawal when the NATO combat mission here concludes at the end of next year.
The Obama administration had set an Oct. 31 deadline for closing the talks, which have been going on for nearly a year, and officials had in recent days begun threatening to start moving toward a complete withdrawal next year. The administration also had decided just over a week ago not to send Kerry to Kabul, believing his chances of success were slim.
But the secretary spoke to Karzai on Oct. 5, Afghan and American officials, and at the end of the call he believed that he could revive the talks by coming to Kabul.
He arrived late Friday afternoon, and by Saturday night, senior Afghan and American officials were crediting him with turning around the situation. Many said it was Kerry’s relatively warm relationship with Karzai — a rarity for any American official these days — that made the difference.
Neither Kerry nor Karzai provided details of what exactly had been agreed to, and it was not clear how they forged a compromise on an Afghan demand 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.
Afghan officials had said that demand was crucial to the country’s sovereignty and must be met. The Obama administration had said it would not consider making any such guarantee.
There currently are an estimated 87,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including about 52,000 Americans. That number will be halved by February and all foreign combat troops will be gone by the end of next year.
Complicating the talks between Karzai and Kerry was a report that the US military had seized Latif Mehsud, a senior Pakistani Taliban leader in Afghanistan. Mehsud had been an asset for the Afghan intelligence services.