US President Barack Obama (R) and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai leave after a joint press conference in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 11, 2013. — Photo by AFP

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama said on Friday that it would be very hard to imagine stability and peace in the region if Pakistan and Afghanistan did not come to some agreement.

At a White House news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Mr Obama also acknowledged that he had seen “a greater awareness (of this issue) on the part of the Pakistani government”.

The news conference which followed an hour-long meeting between the two leaders also indicated that they still had serious differences on a future US military presence in Afghanistan.

While President Obama made it clear that there would be no US troops in Afghanistan after 2014 if Kabul refused to provide complete legal immunity to those deployed there, Mr Karzai insisted that other issues should be resolved before such immunity was granted.

The two leaders, however, agreed to support a Taliban office in Doha and urged the government of Qatar to facilitate the efforts.

President Obama noted that Pakistan and other regional states had a role in the Afghan peace process and that “a strong and secure Afghanistan is in the interest of the entire region”.

“We welcome the recent steps,” said Mr Obama in an indirect reference to  Pakistan’s decision to release Taliban leaders in its custody for enabling them to attend peace talks with the Afghan government.

President Karzai, while explaining how the Taliban liaison office in Doha would function, noted that rebel representatives based there “will engage in direct talks with the representatives of the Afghan High Council for peace”.

Mr Karzai said that delegates from other countries, including Pakistan, would be able to participate in the process aimed at bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

Earlier, after President Karzai’s meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department also emphasised the importance of Pakistan’s support for the Afghan reconciliation process and pointed out that Pakistan had eased travelling restrictions on Taliban leaders.

In reply to a question about the post-2014 US troop presence in Afghanistan, President Obama noted that the United States had troops in other countries as well.

“But nowhere we have any commitment without immunity for our troops,” said the US leader. “Presidents Karzai understands it … it is not possible to have any kind of US troop presence without assurance that US men and women operating there are in some way subject to the laws of another country.”

The United States and its Nato ally plan to withdraw most of their troops from Afghanistan by December 2014 but want to keep some troops there for supporting Afghan national forces in maintaining security in the country.

The two countries are currently negotiating a post-2014 arrangement, which was also discussed at the Obama-Karzai meeting on Friday.

“We understand the issue of immunity is of very specific importance for the US as was the issue of sovereignty for Afghanistan,” said Mr Karzai, pointing out that Kabul had differences with Washington over US military operations and air strikes in the rural areas.

“With those issues resolved, I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for your troops in a way that Afghan sovereignty is not compromised,” said Mr Karzai. But President Obama reminded his Afghan counterpart that after 2014, maintaining peace in Afghan villages will “not be our responsibility; that will be of the Afghan security forces, so that strain will not be there”.

Mr Obama emphasised that after 2014, the US would have “very different mission, very different task” in Afghanistan but only “if we come to an appropriate agreement” on this issue.

President Karzai, when asked how many US troops he would want inAfghanistan after 2014, said: “Numbers are not going to make a difference.

“It is the broader relationship will … it is for the US to decide” how many troops it wanted to keep.

President Obama noted that after 2014 the US would focus on training and assisting Afghan forces and would also want to make sure that Al Qaeda and its associates did not use the region for attacking America or any other country.

“We can achieve that mission without a very active presence in Afghanistan,” he added.

Responding to a question from an Afghan journalist on how the US plans to deal with terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, Mr Obama said that Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan all had an interest in reducing the threat of extremism.

“But it will require more than a military action,” said the US president, stressing the need for better “political and diplomatic” relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The United States, he said, could facilitate between ties between the two countries but “it’s very hard to imagine stability and peace in the region if Pakistan and Afghanistan do not come to some agreement”.

President Karzai said he was looking at various options for defining the US-Afghan relations after 2014, including the Turkish and German models.



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