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United States envoy: Afghan president unchanged on troop deal

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan said Thursday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai still refuses to sign a security deal with the United States until after next April's elections.

James Dobbins, who is on a regular visit to Kabul, told The Associated Press he met with Karzai on Thursday and mostly discussed reconciliation efforts with the Taliban — which the American diplomat says remain stuck because the insurgents don't want to talk.

"On the security agreement we really did not make any progress. It was a restatement of the known positions. I explained why we thought it was important to remove the anxiety and uncertainty around this as quickly as possible," Dobbins said.

Karzai tentatively has endorsed the deal, but refuses to sign it after it was approved by a council of tribal elders known as the Loya Jirga. The council said the agreement with the U.S. should be signed by the end of December, as Washington demands.

Instead, Karzai wants his successor to decide after the April 5 elections. He also has indicated that he will not sign any agreement that allows for continued airstrikes and foreign raids on Afghan homes. Civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. and allied soldiers have been a key source of contention, exacerbated last week by a U.S. drone strike that killed a child.

U.S. and NATO officials stressed at a meeting in Brussels this week that a decision is needed soon on the Bilateral Security Agreement that will allow a continuing training mission in Afghanistan after 2014, when their current mandate expires and all foreign forces must depart.

Military planners need the time to prepare for a post-2014 mission that could involve around 8,000 American and 6,000 allied troops.

Also at stake is more than $8 billion in annual international military and development aid planned for Afghanistan after 2014.

Dobbins said that the "longer we postpone this, the more of that support we are going to lose. The coalition will begin to fragment, the amount of assistance that will be committed will start to erode, and so I felt we really can't afford to delay this much longer."

He added: "I can't say that the president really changed his position as it has been expressed publicly and privately."

Dobbins visited Pakistan before arriving in Kabul for a short visit. He said efforts to get peace talks started was the main focus of his visit, but that we was not optimistic because of Taliban resistance to such negotiations.

"This is something we have tried to advance for some time," he said. "The major obstacle has been the Taliban, but we are eager to try to advance the process and we believe that Pakistan is trying to play a helpful role, which is a relatively new and positive factor which suggests over time there may be opportunities here."

During a visit to Afghanistan last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said his country was committed to helping bring peace to Afghanistan, and pointed to the recent release of a senior Taliban leader as a sign of it.

The Taliban's former No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was set free in September after years in detention and some officials hope he can help jumpstart the peace process. Others have their doubts as many other insurgents who have been released by Pakistan are thought to have returned to the fight.

Dobbins said Karzai had "high hopes" for the peace process.

"I think we are a little more cautious about what the Taliban is likely to be willing to do. But we agreed that we needed to have a common plan and it needs to be a plan to be in common with Pakistan, who has offered to be helpful," Dobbins said.

The Taliban have refused to talk directly with Karzai, his government or its representatives. U.S.-backed talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban failed in June.

Pakistan has a complicated relationship with the Taliban. It helped the group seize control of Afghanistan in 1996, and Kabul has repeatedly accused Islamabad of providing the insurgents sanctuary on its territory following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

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