KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. and Afghanistan signed a deal Sunday giving Afghans authority over raids of Afghan homes, resolving one of the most contentious issues between the two wartime allies.
The majority of these raids are nighttime operations in which U.S. and Afghan troops descend without warning on homes or residential compounds searching for insurgents.
The raids are widely resented by Afghans, and President Hamid Karzai had repeatedly called for a halt to all night raids by international forces. He said for months that they would have to stop before he would sign a much-anticipated pact governing the long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Both countries have said that they wanted that bigger deal signed before the NATO summit in May, so the night raids agreement announced Sunday makes hitting that deadline possible.
Karzai has argued that night raids by international troops make civilian casualties more likely and that U.S. soldiers are disrespectful in the way they conduct the operations. The U.S. military has said such operations are essential for intelligence gathering and for capturing Taliban and al-Qaida commanders.
Sunday's deal appeared to be a compromise: a panel of Afghan security officials get authority to decide what raids will take place and U.S. forces still play a large part in operations, including entering Afghan homes if needed. The Americans also now have an Afghan partner that will be held equally to account if there are civilian casualties or allegations of mistreatment.
The resolution of this dispute is a key step toward finalizing the 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.
Similar agreements with other NATO nations would also have been endangered if one had not been signed with the United States.
The memorandum was signed in front of reporters by Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak and the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. John Allen.
"This is a landmark day in (the) rule of law," 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."
Washington 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 so far had much authority even in operations that are nominally "Afghan-led." Sometimes this designation means only that an Afghan soldier is first through the door, or that officials have rubber stamped a 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.
Since the document only governs certain types of raids, it leaves open the possibility of other types of unilateral U.S. operations that don't involve going into homes. U.S. officials declined to comment on whether there were U.S. operations that did not fall under this agreement. For example, the CIA conducts operations in Afghanistan outside of the military's purview, and it's not clear whether they would be affected.
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 say how this committee will make decisions.
The agreement says Afghan forces will conduct home searches and that U.S. forces will be allowed to enter private compounds "only as required or requested."
The U.S. appears to have given in on a bid to take temporary custody of detainees, presumably for interrogations purposes, according to officials familiar with the talks. The agreement as signed says that the Afghan government will immediately take custody of detainees. The U.S. will only interrogate detainees if asked by the Afghans, according to a U.S. military official involved in the negotiations.
It's unclear if a higher level of Afghan authority will actually mean that the targets of raids will be treated more humanely. Villagers have complained at times that Afghan forces loot houses when they conduct raids. Also, the U.S. military stopped transferring detainees to some Afghan prisons last year after the U.N. discovered evidence of torture.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Patrick Quinn contributed from Kabul.