Progress on US-Afghan deal as Kerry visits Kabul
US Secretary of State John Kerry looks out of the window of a Black Hawk helicopter en route to ISAF Headquarters after an unannounced visit to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Kabul on October 11, 2013
Karzai said this week that he was prepared to walk away from negotiations on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would allow some US troops to stay in the country after 2014.
The United States has pressed for the pact to be signed within weeks so that the US-led NATO military coalition can schedule its withdrawal of 87,000 combat troops by December 2014.
"The tone was constructive throughout the entire conversation," a US official told reporters after meetings late Friday. "It is fair to say that the differences that exist were narrowed on the vast of majority of the outstanding issues."
Karzai's spokesman also said negotiations had advanced, though a joint press conference due at the presidential palace on Saturday was delayed for several hours as talks were extended.
The Afghan government has previously said the sticking points were US demands for the right to conduct unilateral military operations against militants, and how the US would pledge to protect Afghanistan.
Negotiations between Kerry and Karzai came as the US said it had captured a senior leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Latif Mehsud, who is being held in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
"I can confirm that US forces did capture... terrorist leader Latif Mehsud in a military operation," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, describing him as a senior commander in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
She gave no details of the operation, but Pentagon officials said Mehsud was still inside Afghanistan.
"As part of the armed conflict against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces... Mehsud was captured and is being lawfully held by US military forces in Afghanistan," said Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith.
The Washington Post reported Mehsud was seen by Afghanistan as a possible go-between in the struggling peace efforts between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, and that Karzai was angered by Mehsud's capture.
Karzai officially suspended BSA talks in June in a furious reaction to the Taliban opening a liaison office in Qatar that was presented as an embassy for a government in waiting.
He has said he refuses to be rushed into signing any BSA deal, and would first seek approval from a traditional grand assembly of tribal leaders to be convened in about month's time.
The agreement would see a few thousand US troops remain in Afghanistan to train local forces and target Al-Qaeda remnants.
Afghan officials dismiss the possibility that the US may enact the "zero option" of a complete pull-out after its soldiers have fought the Taliban since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
The Afghan leader has had a tempestuous relationship with the US and other foreign allies since he came to power in 2001, often sparking outrage with his criticism of international military efforts to thwart the Taliban insurgents.
"The entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains," he said this week.
A credible election is seen as the key test of Afghanistan's stability as NATO troops withdraw, and Kerry was also due to discuss issues such as voter registration and security with the president.
The Taliban regime was driven from power by a US-led coalition in 2001 for sheltering the Al-Qaeda leaders behind the 9/11 attacks.
Since then the Islamist rebels have fought a bloody insurgency, and both the US and Afghan governments now back peace talks to end the conflict.
Kerry will travel to Paris on Saturday and then London.
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