WASHINGTON – The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee expressed serious concerns that the U.S.-Afghanistan deal giving Afghans authority over night raids could put Americans at greater risk and undercut intelligence gathering critical in the long war.
In a letter Thursday to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon questioned elements of the recent agreement, a major step toward finalizing a strategic partnership on how U.S. forces will operate in Afghanistan after combat troops leave in 2014. The Obama administration and Kabul are pushing to complete the partnership before the NATO summit in Chicago next month.
McKeon raised reservations about the establishment of a panel of Afghan security officials — military, government and intelligence services — and giving it the authority to review and approve what raids will take place.
The California Republican said that while Afghan security forces have made progress in training, the administration must be careful about putting Americans in danger without an independent legal authority to hold an enemy combatant. McKeon also challenged the role of Afghans in planning operations.
"The new framework could also potentially compromise sensitive U.S. information since more Afghans will be involved in sensitive intelligence activities and operational planning," he wrote. "At best, targets may be tipped off before an operation; at worst, U.S. lives may be lost."
Reflecting the uncertainty about the agreement, McKeon also wondered whether the pact will constrain U.S. forces as they try to seek intelligence from captured suspects.
"Intelligence derived during detainee interrogations frequently assists in identifying the location and identities of other terrorists, provides information on the enemy's plans and assists with protecting U.S. forces," he wrote. "Such interrogations, along with the capture operations themselves, are extremely time sensitive."
According to the agreement, Afghan forces will conduct home searches and U.S. forces will be allowed to enter private compounds "only as required or requested." The Afghan government will immediately take custody of detainees and U.S. forces will only interrogate detainees if asked by the Afghans.
In a statement, Panetta spokesman George Little said, "We will, of course, respond to the chairman's letter. The secretary believes that the recently signed memoranda reflect the progress we and the Afghans have made together as the transition process in Afghanistan moves forward. We continue to pursue aggressive operations against our common enemies, and we share the goal of ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists."
The U.S. military considers the night raids critical to operations in Afghanistan. Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces, recently told Congress that they have been effective in rounding up insurgents. But Afghan leaders have criticized the nighttime operations, arguing that they have caused too many civilian deaths and have pressed for greater Afghan control.
Questioned about the agreement this week, Navy Capt. John Kirby dismissed suggestions that Afghans would have veto power over operations. He pointed out that since December, Afghans have commanded the raids.
"The Afghan special operations forces and U.S. special operations forces have been working as a team to develop and identify targets based on intelligence fusion on a combination of intelligence sources from both sides. ... There aren't and haven't been disputes or disagreements about whether or not to develop an operation," said Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
More than 350 raids have been conducted since December, with Afghan and U.S. forces capturing suspects in 270 raids. Shots were fired in 31 raids, Kirby said.
McKeon also expressed concern about the U.S.-Afghan agreement on the gradual transfer of control of the main U.S. prison in Afghanistan. That pact gives Americans six months to transfer Parwan's 3,000 Afghan detainees to Afghan control.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.