Officials: Afghanistan, U.S. close to partnership deal

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. and the Afghan governments are considering pushing through a long-delayed partnership agreement by relegating the contentious issues of night raids and control over detainees to separate negotiations, Afghan and U.S. officials said.

The two governments have been working for about a year to nail down terms of a strategic partnership document that would govern U.S. operations in Afghanistan after 2014, when the Afghan government is expected take charge of security countrywide.

The pact is seen as key to assuring the Afghan people that the U.S. does not plan to abandon the country, even as its draws down troops and cuts aid funding. The hope is that a formal agreement will put an end to constant debate about how American troops will operate in Afghanistan and allay Afghan government concerns about an early exit by international troops.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai has demanded control over detainees and an end to unpopular night raids by U.S. troops as a condition of the pact. The U.S. has said that it is committed to conducting joint operations but that night raids are a key part of its strategy in Afghanistan. The Obama administration also has said that the Afghan judicial system is not yet capable of taking over responsibility for dangerous battlefield detainees.

The impasse has threatened to derail the accord, which both sides say they want to sign before a NATO summit in Chicago in May.

The long-term partnership agreement is expected to provide for several thousand U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014 to train Afghan forces and help with counterterrorism operations. The pact will outline the legal status of those forces in Afghanistan, their operating rules and where they will be based.

To break the stalemate, the two governments have agreed in principle that “the transfer of detention facilities and night operations to Afghan lead and control will be dealt with separately as short-term issues,” said an Afghan official familiar with the talks.

A U.S. official confirmed that the two sides have discussed splitting the negotiations along the same lines and that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is willing to do so. However, Mr. Panetta still prefers one comprehensive package and is pushing to try find a way to settle everything together in one document, the official said.

Both the Afghan and U.S. officials spoke anonymously to discuss ongoing negotiations.

Such a split could provide an avenue for a long-term partnership to be signed before the NATO summit while detention and night raid issues still are being discussed. It is unclear, however, whether Mr. Karzai would agree to sign any sort of partnership document until he feels his priorities have been dealt with.

“The two obstacles which are in front of this document are the night raids and the issue of the prison,” said Emal Faizi, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai. “We want to have an agreement on these issues before signing the document.”

Mr. Faizi declined to comment on whether the government had agreed to deal with the contentious issues in separate agreements.

Mr. Karzai is standing firm publicly. On detainees, he has set a deadline of March 9 for the Americans to transfer control of their main prison in the country — the Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins Bagram Airfield in eastern Afghanistan.

A spokesman for the U.S. detention operation said such dates are targets.

The date for handing over the Parwan facility “has always been ‘conditions based,’” said Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the task force overseeing U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan. He said that the United States will hand over the Parwan prison once it has decided that the Afghan government has the “capacity to effectively handle the operations conducted at the facility.”

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