KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan government and the United States signed a deal Sunday governing night raids by American troops, resolving an issue that had threatened to derail a larger pact governing a U.S. presence in the country for decades to come.
Night raids involve U.S. and Afghan troops descending without warning on homes or residential compounds searching for insurgents. They are widely resented in this deeply conservative country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeatedly has called for a stop to the raids, saying that they make civilian casualties more likely and that international troops are disrespectful in the way they conduct the operations. The U.S. military has said such operations are essential for capturing Taliban and al Qaeda commanders.
The resolution of this dispute is a key step toward finalizing a long-term "strategic partnership" to govern U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the majority of combat forces leave in 2014. The long-term pact is seen as important for assuring the Afghan people that they will not be abandoned by their international allies.
The memorandum was signed in front of reporters by Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, Kabul's defense minister, and the commander of U.S. forces, Marine Corps Gen. John Allen. It appeared to give important benefits to both sides: The document gives the Afghans authority over the raids and gives the Americans an Afghan partner that will now be held equally to account if there are civilian casualties or allegations of mistreatment.
It also was a sign that Mr. Karzai may be willing to compromise on some of his conditions for a long-term pact. Americans and even some of his own advisers feared that his unyielding bargaining style would endanger the entire agreement and, along with it, Afghanistan's long-term security.
Similar agreements with other NATO nations also would have been endangered if one had not been signed with the United States.
Mr. Karzai originally ruled out any type of night raid, and his willingness to accept them in any form indicates that he is willing to sacrifice some of his political capital with other Afghans to prevent the agreement from falling apart.
"This is a landmark day in (the) rule of law," Gen. Allen told reporters. He said that Afghans are now "in the lead on two of the most important issues: capturing the terrorists and ensuring they remain behind bars."
"This is another important step in strengthening the sovereignty of Afghanistan," Gen. Wardak said.
The Afghans say that foreign-led raids lead to the mistreatment and the accidental killing of civilians, but the Pentagon disputes this.
The Americans say 89 percent of night operations occur without a shot fired and fewer than 1 percent result in civilian casualties.
Washington also says that the foreigner-dominated raids that Karzai so frequently condemns are already a rarity. More than 97 percent of night operations are combined operations involving Afghan forces and almost 40 percent of night operations are now Afghan-led.
However, it's unclear whether Afghan forces have had much authority even in operations that are nominally "Afghan-led." Sometimes this designation means only that an Afghan soldier is the first one through the door or that officials have given a rubber stamp to the mission just as it starts.
According to the document, all "special operations" will have to be reviewed and approved by a panel pulled from the Afghan military, government and intelligence services. The definition of a "special operation" is left vague but appears to apply to night raids as well as other operations that involve going into Afghan homes.
Any disagreements will be resolved by a joint U.S.-Afghan committee including the defense minister and the U.S. forces commander, the agreement says. It does not specify how this higher-level committee would make its decisions.
The agreement says that Afghan forces will conduct home searches and that U.S. forces will be allowed to enter private compounds "only as required or requested."
It's unclear if a higher level of Afghan authority will actually mean that the targets of raids will be treated more humanely. There have been instances of villagers complaining that when Afghan forces conduct raids they also loot houses. Also, the U.S. military stopped transferring detainees to a number of Afghan prisons after the U.N. discovered evidence of torture at the facilities.
But it is clear that the memorandum brings a strategic partnership closer.
"It opens the way for the signing of the strategic partnership agreement which we hope our two presidents will be able to sign in the near future," said Janan Mosazai, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. Both U.S. and Afghan officials have said that they expect to sign the full partnership deal in time for a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
The night raids deal follows an earlier memorandum signed on the transfer of authority over detentions to the Afghans — another issue that had threatened to derail the strategic partnership talks.
The detention pact sets forth a timetable to give Afghans operational control of facilities used to hold Afghan detainees, but it leaves decisions on who to release to a panel that includes American military officials that must come to a consensus before any detainee is let go — essentially giving the Americans the ability to veto any release.