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Saturday February 13th, 2016 12:21PM

US-Afghan officials near a deal on American troops

By The Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai reached an agreement in principle Saturday on the major elements of a deal that would allow American troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

However, U.S. officials said a potentially deal-breaking issue of jurisdiction over those forces must still be worked out with some political and tribal leaders in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials traveling with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the deal negotiated with Karzai meets all American conditions, including on the jurisdiction issue, and that all that remains is for Karzai to win political approval for it.

During the talks, Kerry made frequent phone calls back to Washington, speaking with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice multiple times, the officials said.

The American contingent was hopeful that a national consultative assembly of tribal elders, or Loya Jirga, and the Afghan parliament would approve the agreement, the officials said. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the agreement by name.

Kerry spoke with Karzai after a marathon series of meetings and repeated delays of Kerry's departure from Afghanistan. Both men later said agreement had been reached on a series of contentious sovereignty issues and the safety of Afghan citizens at the hands of American and allied troops that had deadlocked talks in the past year.

But Karzai said he would punt the issue of who has jurisdiction for any crimes committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014 to the Loya Jirga that he has asked to be convened within a month. Their opinion on whether to approve or disapprove an American demand that its forces be remanded to U.S. military courts would then be sent to the Afghan parliament.

Kerry responded that any decision made by the Loya Jirga and parliament would be respected, but he added that if the jurisdiction issue was not resolved there would be no agreement.

In Iraq, a similar deal fell apart after U.S. officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on the same issue that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain there. The United States completely pulled out of Iraq after the deal collapsed.

The jurisdiction issue came to the fore after an American soldier, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, killed 16 people in two villages in southern Afghanistan last year. He was convicted in August by a military court and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release.

Kerry explained that the issue should not be equated with immunity, as it is perceived by many Afghans. He said the United States would prosecute any wrongdoing and that similar agreements existed with many countries, like Japan and South Korea.

Kerry began negotiations with Karzai in the morning, the second day of talks after he arrived late Friday. He left shortly after the last meeting, headed for Europe and the United States.

Discussions had repeatedly stalled in recent weeks over Karzai's demand for American guarantees against future foreign intervention from countries like Pakistan, and U.S. demands for any post-2014 residual force to be able to conduct counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.

The situation deteriorated in the past week following a series of angry comments from Karzai that the United States and NATO were repeatedly violating Afghanistan's sovereignty and inflicting suffering on its people.

Karzai has been reticent to sign a deal, worried about his legacy and possibly because of a lingering bitterness over what he considered as foreign meddling in the 2009 presidential vote that almost cost him the election. Having completed a second term, he is not eligible to run in the April 5 presidential elections.

He is keenly aware that previous leaders of his country historically have been punished for selling out to foreign interests and wants to make sure that any U.S.-Afghan agreement is not seen in that light.

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.

The U.S. wants to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country to go after the remnants of al-Qaida, but if no agreement is signed, all U.S. troops would have to leave by Dec. 31, 2014. President Barack Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press he would be comfortable with a full pullout of U.S. troops.
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