Afghan President Hamid Karzai, seen at a ceremony marking the 8th anniversary… (Massoud Hossaini, AFP/Getty…)
KABUL, Afghanistan – Diplomats from the United States and Afghanistan met formally Saturday for only the second time since the two countries inked a strategic partnership agreement a year ago as they sought to hammer out an agreement defining Washington’s 10-year commitment to the war-ravaged country.
A senior diplomat from each country spoke of progress Saturday, but the talks come at a time of tension over Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s public criticism of U.S. actions in Afghanistan as the NATO combat mission winds down.
The Afghan president has accused the U.S. of scheming to back his political opponents, and in a speech here Thursday, Karzai revealed confidential details of U.S.-Afghan security talks, saying the U.S. is seeking the use of nine military bases in Afghanistan after 2014 when the Western combat mission is scheduled to end.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns stressed in remarks before Saturday’s session that Washington is not backing any candidate to replace Karzai in national elections set for April 2014.
"We are supporting the process and not any particular candidate," Burns told reporters at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He stressed that the election should be "transparent, credible and inclusive."
Burns reaffirmed the long-term American commitment to Afghanistan, saying: "As the Afghan people stand up, you will not stand alone."
The U.S. has pledged diplomatic, economic and security support after NATO troops leave. But details have yet to be worked out, with the U.S. seeking to curb rampant Afghan government corruption and demanding a commitment to political freedom and human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls.
Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul described "substantial progress" on the the security front, saying 90% of Afghans live in areas where Afghan forces have taken over the lead from U.S. and coalition forces in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgents.
Burns said the U.S. is on schedule to transfer all security and combat responsibilities to Afghan forces by the end of the year. U.S. forces, which number about 63,000, will be reduced by half by early next year under a timetable announced by President Obama. The troops are completing a transition from combat to training and advising the Afghan army and police.
Separately, the two countries are negotiating a bilateral security agreement on the presence of any U.S. troops who will serve in Afghanistan after 2014.
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