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WASHINGTON – The United States and Afghanistan have resolved most issues and are nearing completion of an agreement that paves the way for an American military presence after 2014 that will include a limited U.S. counterterrorism force and military advisers.
"We're at the point now where we concluded the text," said a senior State Department official familiar with the negotiations. "We're in a period of endgame." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal is not official.
Without the so-called bilateral security agreement, the United States would be unable to remain beyond 2014, jeopardizing Afghanistan's government and its armed forces.
The Afghans have agreed to continue to allow the United States to maintain legal jurisdiction over its troops in Afghanistan, a requirement the Pentagon said was not negotiable.
Disagreement over a similar provision ended up scuttling plans for a residual force in Iraq after the end of the combat mission there in 2011. Without such a provision, U.S. forces could be tried by local courts.
The agreement needs final approval from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has frequently frustrated the United States in negotiations.
"Just waiting on Karzai could be a long wait," said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank. Karzai may delay the signing if he believes it will provide him leverage over the United States.
In negotiations over the bilateral security agreement, Afghans pushed for security guarantees from the United States, said Said Jawad, a former Afghanistan ambassador to the United States. Afghanistan has frequently voiced concerns about interference from neighboring Pakistan.
The Afghan military was designed for fighting an internal counterinsurgency and isn't equipped with the fighter aircraft and other military equipment required to defend its borders, Jawad said.
The Afghans also wanted assurances of financial support included in the agreement.
The State Department official said the United States could not spell out such guarantees in the document, which is limited to establishing a framework for the U.S. military presence there, but U.S. officials have tried to allay those concerns in discussions with Afghans.
"It's a big deal because these are the key issues," Jawad said.
Karzai has followed the negotiations closely and has raised issues occasionally. "We know he's been consulted each step of the way," the State Department official said. "He's read the text."
The White House has not announced the size of the residual force in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has said an American presence is critical to support Afghanistan's government and armed forces.
After 2014, the Afghan security forces "will still require substantial training, advising and assistance — including financial support — to address ongoing shortcomings," according to a Pentagon report released this week.
The agreement spells out two missions for the U.S. military after 2014: assisting Afghan security forces and establishing a U.S. counterterrorism force that will be limited to pursuing al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
"We're not suggesting under any of the conceivable scenarios that we will have a (counterterrorism) force in the country large enough to go after the Taliban," the State Department official said.
"We're no longer seeking out the Taliban," he said. "That's the responsibility of the Afghan national security forces."
The Afghan security forces have increasingly been taking a lead role in fighting the Taliban.
It's not clear what the counterterrorism force could do to respond to a large Taliban resurgence after 2014. "This does raise a lot of issues," said Seth Jones, an analyst at Rand. "What happens if the Taliban make a move on a city?"
The official and analysts say the language may allow for U.S. forces to pursue some Taliban leaders and other insurgent groups if there is an established link to al-Qaeda, the international terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I think there is a bit of wiggle room," Jones said. "How you define affiliate is subject to some debate."