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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

2014 looms large for Afghanistan, with American troops due to be out by then. This has alarmed many Afghans, who fear a resurgent Taliban. And the U.S. wants to keep a residual military force there. But the U.S. and Afghanistan must agree on the terms of that deployment. This past weekend brought a breakthrough. With just days to go before President Obama's deadline for setting those terms, Secretary of State John Kerry sat down with President Hamid Karzai and reached an agreement. We caught up with Secretary Kerry in his office at the State Department.

Secretary Kerry, welcome.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Thank you. Glad to be with you.

MONTAGNE: You know, in these last travels of yours, you paid an unscheduled visit to Kabul at a time when President Karzai was talking about letting the U.S. forces leave Afghanistan completely, 100 percent, and you came away with the makings of a deal that would allow some U.S. forces to stay. What is in that agreement, and what remains to be worked out?

KERRY: Well, everything that will be necessary to a successful agreement is in the agreement. We succeeded in defining exactly what the limits would be for American participation in the future, which means no combat operations. We will only be advising and assisting and equipping. We made it clear what our counterterrorism operations might continue to be, because of the continuing threat of al-Qaida and other entities. And we made it clear what we would need to do for force protection - for the protection of our own soldiers on the ground and for self-defense.

The difficult issue that the president wants to submit to the people of Afghanistan through what they call the loya jirga is a question of who maintains jurisdiction over those Americans who would be there. And needless to say, we are adamant it has to be the United States of America. That's the way it is everywhere else in the world. And they have a choice: either that's the way it is, or there won't be any forces there of any kind.

MONTAGNE: Now, when you say jurisdiction, you are speaking now about U.S. troops not being subject to Afghanistan law, directly. They can't be tried there. They can't be arrested.

KERRY: Well, that's the way it is today. That's correct. It doesn't mean that anybody is immune. We recently tried a soldier who murdered a number of people in Afghanistan. And he was tried and found guilty.

MONTAGNE: So, President Karzai is going to put that before a gathering of elders, the loya jirga, but he also has to put this before his own parliament. Is it possible that the parliament can reject it? And then what?

KERRY: I believe they understand that this agreement is in the interests of Afghanistan because it's an agreement that provides for international support, not just the United States. There are over 50 countries that are currently supporting Afghanistan through NATO and through the international forces. And the fact is that they are essential, in many ways, to the future stability of the country. And I think the president understands that, which is why we came to reach an agreement. This is also linked to development assistance, because there needs to be security in order for that to happen. So I think people in Afghanistan understand this is important. Now, if they reject it, they reject it.

MONTAGNE: Well, is it also, though, important for the U.S.? Because, as you know, a lot of Americans would like to see the U.S. leave Afghanistan.

KERRY: Well, we are leaving Afghanistan, in terms of a combat role. We had a 100 and, you know, 40-thousand-plus troops there at one point in time. We're going down to a very few number of troops. The president has not fixed the exact number yet. But it would be enormously damaging to America's interests and to the region for the United States just to, you know, turn its back on the investment of the last 12 years. A lot of Americans have laid down their lives. A lot of people have put an enormous amount of energy into providing opportunity for Afghans to have a better set of opportunities and to have a stability that could redefine the region.

MONTAGNE: Would it matter, though, when you speak of America's interests, what would it matter if Afghanistan became unstable?

KERRY: You'd go right back to where we were with al-Qaida and other interests taking over ungoverned spaces, and plotting against not just the United States, but against all parts of the world that don't represent their extremist and dangerous point of view.

MONTAGNE: I'm speaking with Secretary of State John Kerry. Let's turn now for a moment to Syria and its chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad is working with international chemical weapons inspectors to destroy his massive stockpile of chemical weapons. But does that not, Secretary Kerry, keep him in power for many more months to come?

KERRY: No. The fact is that these weapons can be removed whether Assad is there or not there, because we know the locations. Locations have been declared. Locations are being secured. And my hope is that much of this material will be moved as rapidly possible into one location and - hopefully on a ship - and removed from the region. And that's part of the intent of the agreement that we worked out. So, I don't believe that one man, one person is essential to that. Certainly, a structure within the state of Syria is important, which is why one of our foreign policy goals in our approach to a political settlement is to maintain the institutions of the state. And if you can orchestrate an orderly transition through a Geneva peace conference, which is our objective, then you can secure the weapons, as well as secure the future of a diverse and pluralistic and well-represented Syria.

MONTAGNE: Do you have any evidence, though, that Bashar al-Assad is weakening or losing power, and should that happen, that there is an opposition, that is to say that moderate rebel groups are capable of taking power and actually governing that country?

KERRY: What we have evidence of is this: There is no military solution. Absolutely not. There is only a continued rate of destruction and creation of a humanitarian catastrophe for everybody in the region if the fighting continues. So we're trying to move the process forward. I will have meetings next Tuesday in London with the support group of the opposition. We're working towards this Geneva conference - not that we know what the outcome is, but we know that the goal is the implementation of the agreement reached a year ago, which says you have to have a transition government arrived at by mutual consent. Now, I believe that if you could pull together a negotiated settlement by which the Syrian people choose the future of Syria, then you can ultimately isolate the extremists and hold together a secular state of Syria.

MONTAGNE: Secretary Kerry, thank you very much.

KERRY: Thank you. Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Secretary of State John Kerry, in his office at the State Department. Later in the program, we'll take a closer look at what it would mean to take, as he suggests, chemical weapons out of Syria. This is NPR News.

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