BRUSSELS Senior U.S. and NATO officials said on Tuesday they were confident Afghanistan's elders and parliament would back a deal allowing American troops to stay there after 2014, playing down lingering concerns over the accord.
The Afghan president's spokesman Aimal Faizi had told Reuters on Sunday Kabul and Washington had not yet agreed on several issues in a bilateral security pact, raising the prospect that the U.S. might still have to pull all its troops from the war-ravaged nation by the deadline.
But two days later, Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi was positive about the prospects of a Bilateral Security Agreement during talks with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Brussels, according to a U.S. defense official.
"Mohammadi expressed strong confidence that the (Bilateral Security Agreement) would be agreed to soon, and that the vast majority of Afghans support it," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It was not immediately possible to reach Mohammadi or his aides to confirm the comments on the pact, which Washington and Kabul have been trying to conclude for almost a year.
The deal will help determine how many U.S. soldiers and bases remain in Afghanistan after most foreign combat troops exit by the end of next year.
A senior U.S. military official, speaking separately to reporters traveling with Hagel on condition he not be named, also said he saw "a very, very, very low probability" of total withdrawal from Afghanistan.
He said confidence was growing among NATO allies following U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Kabul this month, even despite differences over Washington's demand that its troops be immune from Afghan law and tried in the United States.
"I feel pretty confident - particularly now - that there will be an agreement post-2014" for an American troop presence, the official said.
The official added that Taliban insurgents were expected to attempt to disrupt elections in Afghanistan over the winter by , targeting election officials and candidates. The winter usually sees a decline in fighting.
The Loya Jirga, an assembly of Afghanistan's tribal elders, is to meet in November to discuss the security agreement. If approved, the BSA would then be submitted to parliament.
The senior U.S. military official said he was "cautiously optimistic" the deal could be signed within weeks of being approved by the Loya Jirga. That could then allow for a NATO status of forces agreement, something that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he thought was likely.
"I'm confident we will reach agreement," Rasmussen told reporters, noting that Afghans knew NATO would be unable to deploy training forces to Afghanistan without one.
President Barack Obama has yet to announce how many troops he wants to keep in Afghanistan. There are about 51,000 troops there now, a figure set to fall to 34,000 by early next year.
Hagel told reporters on Monday there had been no change to the planning proposal presented by his predecessor to NATO defense ministers in February that the allies would keep between
8,000-12,000 troops in the country beyond 2014.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart)