KABUL – The Afghan government and the U.S. 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.
The raids were a constant source of tension between Kabul and Washington. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called repeatedly to stop the raids, saying that they are provocative when carried out by foreign troops. The U.S. military has said such operations are essential for capturing Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders.
A 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 Kabul's Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak and the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. John Allen.
"Today we are one step closer to the establishment of a strategic partnership," Allen told reporters.
"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 issue over the conduct of night raids had been a major sticking point between the U.S. and the Afghan government.
The Afghans say that foreign-led raids cause widespread resentment and lead to civilian deaths, but the Pentagon disputes this.
More than 97 percent of night operations are combined operations involving Afghan forces and almost 40 percent of night operations are now Afghan-led, according to the Pentagon. Also, 89 percent of night operations occur without a shot fired and fewer than 1 percent result in civilian casualties, the Pentagon says.
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.
Under the agreement, all "special operations" will have to be reviewed and approved by a panel pulled from the Afghan military, government and intelligence services, according to an Afghan official familiar with the agreement. The official said "special operation" could mean any "unconventional" operation, but not ordinary patrols or conventional pushes to take territory.
These decisions will be made in consultation with U.S. forces taking into consideration intelligence gathered by the U.S. military, the official said, but it was unclear if the Americans would also have a member on the panel or a say in the final decision.
The official spoke anonymously to discuss the agreement before it was signed.
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 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.
There may be similar fine print in the night raid deal that would allow U.S. forces to maintain a significant level of authority.
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.