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Afghans baulk at U.S. push for operations after 2014: spokesman

Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing September 27
Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing September 27

By Dylan Welch and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) - A U.S. bid to run unilateral counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan after 2014 is threatening to derail a security pact between the two countries, an Afghan spokesman said, underlining Afghanistan's tenuous ties with its main backer.

Most foreign combat troops are due to leave by the end of 2014, and the United States has been putting pressure on Afghanistan to finalize a bilateral security agreement by the end of this month.

The pact will set out the terms of a U.S. presence after 2014 and will be followed by similar deals with other countries such as Germany and Italy.

But two issues have emerged as potential "deal breakers", President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told reporters late on Tuesday.

One is a U.S. desire to run independent counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan after 2014, Faizi said. The other was a U.S. refusal to agree to a wide-reaching promise to protect Afghanistan from foreign aggression.

Karzai has long opposed operations in Afghanistan by U.S. special operations forces and the CIA, particularly when they run the risk of causing civilian casualties.

"These things are strongly related to our sovereignty," Faizi said. "We find it to be something that will definitely undermine our sovereignty, if we allow the U.S. forces to have the right to conduct unilateral military operations."

Negotiations on the pact have been going on since November last year but have hit hurdles.

Karzai suspended talks in June in response to the opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf state of Qatar, when the Taliban displayed their banner and flag, a reminder of their repressive rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

"We still believe that this is a very important agreement and we want to sign," Faizi said, adding that the president's signature would be no small matter.

"He will definitely be held accountable by history and by the people of Afghanistan if things go wrong," he said.

A senior U.S. official in Kabul disagreed that the issues Faizi identified threatened to derail the talks, but declined to elaborate or give any details on the negotiations.

"FINAL STAGE"

When asked what would happen if an agreement between Karzai and Obama could not be reached, Faizi repeated what Karzai has recently said, that the next government could deal with it.

"We still believe that there will be time for the next government to work on this with the U.S., if progress is not made before the elections."

An Afghan presidential election, in which Karzai will not be running, is due in April next year. Western diplomats have expressed concern about postponing negotiations for the next government to deal with.

The collapse of a similar pact between the United States and Iraq in 2011, sparked partly by Iraq's refusal to provide legal immunity to U.S. soldiers serving there, led to the United States pulling most of its troops out.

The United States has used Afghanistan to mount operations in neighboring Pakistan, so the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, if that were to happen, could have implications beyond Afghanistan's borders.

The talks have been led by a small group of senior officials from the two sides but had now reached the "final stage" and would be completed at the presidential level, Faizi said.

"The last meeting was the day before yesterday and it was chaired by the president ... The same is expected from the U.S. side also - the involvement of President (Barack) Obama."

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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