U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is urging Afghan leaders to sign a bilateral security agreement, saying it is key to ensuring peace in the country after most international troops depart at the end of next year.
Hagel met with Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers’ gathering to discuss Afghanistan's prospects after the NATO mission ends there in 2014.
Hagel and other top U.S. defense officials say they are hopeful and confident Afghan leaders will conclude an agreement recently announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
On his flight Monday to Brussels, Hagel said he believes the Afghans also understand the need to quickly, but carefully, approve an agreement that will set the rules governing the presence of foreign troops remaining in the country after 2014.
“I think they are handling this with responsible analysis and we are on track. We are not behind schedule on this. But it has to be done this way because so many people and countries are involved but in particular the Afghan people have got to sign off. They have got to be comfortable. They have got to be the ones inviting us to stay as a partner,” said Hagel.
The preliminary agreement is now subject to approval by Afghan tribal leaders and the Afghan parliament.
A sensitive process
Officials at the NATO meeting have been careful not to discuss any details of where the two sides remain far apart. They say they are concerned any leaks could harm what they call a very sensitive process.
A major potential sticking point is the firm U.S. demand to retain legal jurisdiction over its soldiers that remain in the country after 2014, effectively making them immune from being prosecuted under Afghan law.
Hagel told the Afghan defense minister there is still work to be done to address Afghanistan's security challenges, but it remains critical for Afghanistan to sign the agreement.
A senior military U.S. official on Tuesday told reporters he is confident the Afghan people will approve the deal, which he said is vital to ensuring the delivery of billions of dollars of international aid that has been pledged to help Afghanistan's development after the NATO withdrawal.
NATO troops have been transferring combat duties to Afghan forces, which took the lead against insurgents in the fighting season that has just ended.
The U.S. expressed concerns about the high number of casualties that Afghan forces were suffering at the start of the season, which averaged about 100 per week.
That number dropped by about half at the end of the season, following what a U.S. military official said were heightened efforts to train Afghan forces on how to treat soldiers who are wounded in battle.