* Kerry makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan
* U.S. hoping for security deal by end-October
* Karzai says deal can wait until after April vote
By Lesley Wroughton
KABUL, Oct 11 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
and Afghan President Hamid Karzai narrowed differences in
initial talks on Friday on terms for a future U.S. military
presence in Afghanistan after 2014, a U.S. official said.
Washington says it wants a deal done by the end of October
but talks have stumbled over two issues that have become deal
breakers for Kabul. Karzai has declared it can wait until after
presidential elections in April next year, further straining
what has become a rocky relationship between the allies.
"The differences that existed coming in were narrowed on the
vast majority of the outstanding issues," a senior State
Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said Kerry and Karzai will meet again on
Saturday but declined to say whether enough progress was made to
strike a deal on the Bilateral Security Agreement by the end of
The pact will determine the presence of U.S. forces in
Afghanistan after most are withdrawn in 2014. Failure to reach a
deal could prompt Washington to pull out all of its forces at
the end of 2014, an outcome known as the "zero option".
The talks over the pact have stalled over two points.
One is a U.S. request to run independent counter-terrorism
missions on Afghan territory, which have long infuriated Karzai.
The Afghans instead want the United States to pass on
information and let them handle the action.
The second sticking point is a U.S. refusal to guarantee
protection from foreign forces as it could lead to offensive
action against another ally, neighbouring Pakistan.
The official described the talks as candid but constructive,
covering areas where differences exist including demands by
Afghanistan for more access to U.S. intelligence.
Karzai raised with Kerry the recent capture by U.S. forces
of Latif Mehsud, a senior commander with the Pakistani Taliban,
the official added. "At no point during the conversation did the
tone veer in the direction of being sharp on either side."
Their talks at Karzai's presidential palace lasted about
three hours and included a 10-minute private conversation, the
official said. Kerry was joined by the U.S. ambassador to
Afghanistan, James Cunningham, and General Joseph Dunford, the
top U.S. general to Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said earlier Kerry did not intend to close a
deal on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) during the visit.
"This is really about us building momentum for the
negotiators and helping establish conditions for success of the
negotiations going forward," another State Department official
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the White
House was increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term
partnership with Afghanistan. While the Pentagon has pleaded for
patience, the rest of the administration was fed up with Karzai
and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority, the newspaper said.
"The Afghans' primary goal with the BSA is to come up with
an agreement that meets their security needs, and we fully
believe that what's on the table right now would do that," the
State Department official said.
The collapse of similar talks between the United States and
Iraq in 2011 - triggered partly by Baghdad's refusal to provide
immunity to U.S. soldiers serving there - led to the United
States pulling its troops out of the country.
Washington is concerned that as Afghan election campaigning
intensifies it will be harder to broker a deal. Indeed, Karzai's
brothers this week began their campaign to take power and plan
to offer the outgoing president, who is constitutionally barred
from running again, a position in their government.
The election is considered the most crucial since the
U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, which brought Karzai
to power, and an opportunity to push the country away from years
of damaging allegations of corruption and maladministration.
"It's going to be more difficult for them to focus on
getting to a resolution of these issues, so we'd like to bring
them to a close before we get to that point," the U.S. official