KABUL, Afghanistan — With negotiations for some U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan after next year at an impasse, Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to the Afghan capital Friday to bargain with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Kerry, who has a long relationship with the mercurial leader, is trying to help bridge the last sticking points that have prevented the two countries from reaching a deal, State Department officials traveling with Kerry said.
Karzai made friendly small talk with Kerry at the start of a meeting at his palace. The two then met for about three hours, including dinner, U.S. officials said afterward. They also went for a 10-minute walk alone on the Afghan palace grounds.
The mood appeared relaxed, and neither Kerry nor Karzai said anything about the substance of the coming discussion when reporters were initially in the room.
U.S. officials described the talks as candid but not shrill, and said differences were narrowed on both sides. They would not provide details, and said the two men would meet again today.
Talks are expected to continue after Kerry's visit, but he will stress the need to secure a deal by Oct. 31, officials said.
Talks on a security agreement are stalled over long-standing Afghan demands for greater control and access to U.S. intelligence, and U.S. insistence that remaining forces not be subject to Afghan law.
The "bilateral security agreement" is supposed to assure Afghans of an ongoing U.S. commitment and protect the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 U.S. forces expected to carry out training and counterterrorism missions after the NATO-led international mission ends in 2014.
Karzai has denounced U.S. demands as unreasonable, and appeared ready to walk out on talks. Kerry is trying to convince him that the pact is in Afghan interests and that Karzai risks losing U.S. and NATO pledges of aid and cooperation if no deal is made.
Karzai has insisted that he's in no hurry to sign a security agreement with the United States, and has suggested that perhaps his successor could resume negotiations with the United States next year, despite American eagerness to finish a pact this month.
"If the agreement doesn't suit us, then, of course, they can leave," Karzai said in an interview with the BBC this week.
Karzai has said that two major sticking points hold up a deal: The lack of commitment from the United States to protect Afghanistan from Pakistan, and the U.S. interest in conducting unilateral operations in Afghanistan, which he rejects.