WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is optimistic that a U.S.-Afghan agreement over the future role of American troops in the country can be finalized in the next few weeks despite two main sticking points and President Hamid Karzai's emotional outburst Monday alleging that the U.S. and NATO repeatedly violate Afghan sovereignty.
Nearly a year of negotiations have so far failed to yield a deal and it is still possible that the two sides will never reach an agreement.
The U.S. wants to keep as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to go after the remnants of al-Qaida, but if no agreement is signed, all U.S. troops would have to leave by Dec. 31, 2014.
Roughly 95 percent of the dozen-page agreement is complete and the rest is penciled in until the two sides can agree on language, according to an Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations.
U.S. and Afghan negotiators held their latest round of talks on Monday, focusing their attention on two sticking points -- both tough issues that remain unresolved.
Afghanistan wants American guarantees against future foreign intervention, a veiled reference to neighboring Pakistan. Afghanistan accuses its neighbor of harboring the Taliban and other extremists who enter Afghanistan and then cross back into Pakistan where they cannot be attacked by Afghan or U.S.-led international forces.
The second sticking point is about the role and conduct of the counterterrorism force the U.S. wants to leave behind.
VA says progress halted: The Department of Veterans Affairs says the government shutdown has halted the progress it was making in reducing a backlog of disability and pensions claims. The department said Monday that the backlog stood at about 418,500 at the end of September. It has increased by slightly more than 200 since the shutdown, largely because the VA stopped requiring disability claims processors to work overtime. The backlog had been dropping by more than 2,000 claims a day in the week leading up to the shutdown. Most of the VA is exempt from furloughs. But 7,000 VA workers will be furloughed today and access to all regional offices will be suspended. Another 2,750 technology workers were furloughed Monday. Some help to maintain the disability claims computer system.
FAA brings back some workers: Federal Aviation Administration officials say 800 furloughed employees, including some safety inspectors, are being asked to return to work this week despite no end in sight to the partial government shutdown. The recalled workers include about 600 inspectors and other safety employees in the agency's Flight Standards office. The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union says that's less than a quarter of all furloughed Flight Standards inspectors. The inspectors check to see whether airlines are maintaining their planes according to FAA rules, among other duties. Also being recalled are 200 engineers, inspectors and safety staff who approve new plane designs and equipment and register new planes. Manufacturers of small planes and business jets say the shutdown threatens to halt $1.38 billion in near-term deliveries of new planes.
To undergo surgery: Argentina President Cristina Fernandez will undergo surgery today to remove blood between her brain and skull that has been causing new and worrying symptoms, her physicians said. The president's doctors said they had ordered Fernandez on Saturday to rest for a month after discovering the subdural hematoma -- a clot inside her skull pressuring her brain and causing headaches. In some patients, such blood clots reabsorb by themselves over time. But the situation became more urgent after Fernandez felt a weakness and numbness in her upper left arm Sunday evening, according to doctors at the Fundacion Favaloro, one of Argentina's top cardiology hospitals. The surgery involves drilling small holes through the skull to remove old blood.
Find "wall" of bodies: Deep sea divers "unpacked a wall of people" from the hull of a smuggler's trawler on the sea floor near the Italian island of Lamedusa on Monday, gingerly untangling the dead would-be migrants in the latest and most painstaking phase of a recovery operation following the ship's fiery capsizing. It was the first time the divers had been able to reach the hull, and authorities said 38 more bodies were recovered, raising the death toll from last Thursday's tragedy to 232. Scores more are believed missing; most, if not all, were Eritreans trying to reach Europe in search of asylum and a better life. "They unpacked a wall of people," said Navy Capt. Paolo Trucco of the deep sea specialists. The bodies "were so entwined, one with the other, it is indescribable. They were so trapped they were difficult to pull out."
Greek ex-minister jailed: Akis Tsochadzopoulos, a former Greek defense minister was jailed for 20 years after being found guilty Monday of money laundering in the most prominent corruption case to date in the financially stricken country. After a five-month trial, an Athens court found Tsochadzopoulos, a prominent figure in previous Socialist governments, guilty along with 16 of his 18 co-defendants, including his wife, ex-wife and daughter. The 73-year-old former minister had denied all the charges against him and had accused the prosecution of conducting a politically motivated trial. Tsochadzopoulos' wife and daughter both received 12-year prison terms, and his ex-wife and cousin were ordered jailed for six years. The other defendants were handed 6- to 16-year sentences.