WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday that the United States and Afghanistan had reached agreement on a security partnership after international combat troops withdraw, and that the deal would be presented to a gathering of influential tribal leaders beginning Thursday.
The deal, whose terms Kerry did not disclose, will be subject to approval by the tribal assembly, known as a loya jirga, as well as the Afghan parliament. The tribal gathering is an advisory body only, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai has indicated he won't sign the security agreement unless the assembly approves it.
"As we sit here tonight, we have agreed on the language that would be submitted to a loya jirga, but they have to pass it," Kerry said at the State Department. "So I think it's inappropriate for me to comment at all on any of the details. It's up to the people of Afghanistan."
There was no immediate confirmation of an agreement from Afghan officials, and Kerry's remarks left unclear how the two sides had resolved the contentious issue of American troops entering Afghan residential areas in pursuit of insurgents or terrorists, a practice known as night raids. The U.S. wants its special operations forces to continue night raids after Western combat troops depart the country by the end of next year, but Karzai has insisted for months that only Afghan troops should carry out such missions.
According to Karzai's spokesman, a deal proposed Tuesday in a phone call between Karzai and Kerry suggested a letter from President Obama acknowledging "mistakes" by U.S. troops and the suffering of Afghans in cases of civilian casualties. U.S. officials have refused to confirm discussions of any letter on night raids, but Kerry said that Karzai hadn't demanded an apology as a condition of any agreement.
"There was no discussion of an apology," Kerry said. "I mean, it's just not even on the table."
Late Wednesday night in Afghanistan — which, given the time difference, was before Kerry spoke in Washington — the Afghan Foreign Ministry posted online what it termed a "pre-decisional" draft of the security agreement dated November 2013. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that wasn't the final document and that U.S. officials were still reviewing it.
For several days, U.S. and Afghan officials had seemed far from agreement on the culturally sensitive issue of night raids. Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, had said that the security pact would include language authorizing U.S. military operations in residential areas under "extraordinary circumstances," and only if the lives of U.S. troops were directly at risk.
Although Kerry said "there is no combat role for United States forces" beyond 2014, U.S. military officials have said that such language wouldn't preclude special operations troops from conducting night raids, which often occur in conjunction with Afghan forces.
The raids are deeply unpopular in Afghanistan and likely to provoke strong opposition among delegates to the tribal assembly meeting in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Because Karzai has a strong hand in the selection of the delegates, he could prevail on the gathering to reject any deal that does not reflect his demands on night raids.
An official at the Afghan presidential office said in a brief telephone interview Wednesday night that the loya jirga would proceed on schedule, with Karzai delivering the opening address. The Afghan leader had proposed presenting the 2,700 delegates with a draft document containing both the U.S. and Afghan positions on night raids and asking them to approve one. It was not immediately clear whether the document would match the draft posted online.
The United States has said that without a bilateral security agreement, no American troops would remain after 2014. If so, billions of dollars in annual military and development aid to Afghanistan would be at risk, and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would almost certainly make no post-2014 commitments to the Central Asian nation. Some aid agencies probably would cut back operations because of security concerns.
The United States seeks to deploy a limited number of military advisors after 2014 to train Afghan security forces and provide logistical assistance. Washington also wants access to nine military bases built by the Americans, which will be transferred to Afghan authority after 2014.
Afghan military commanders readily acknowledge that their army and police could not sustain the fight against Taliban insurgents without continued infusions of U.S. cash for salaries, weapons and equipment, or without continued U.S. logistical support.
The security pact won't specify the size of the post-2014 U.S. troop presence, a determination that is to come later from the Obama administration. The top commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, has privately urged the administration to keep as many as 12,000 troops, whereas some White House advisors have argued for as few as 6,000.
The document posted by the Foreign Ministry states that the two countries agree that "U.S. military operations to defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates may be appropriate in the common fight against terrorism." After 2014, U.S. counter-terrorism operations will be in support of Afghan security forces' efforts "with full respect for Afghan sovereignty and full regard for the safety and security of the Afghan people, including in their homes," according to the draft.
The document adopts the U.S. position that American military forces and civilian contractors would be subject to U.S., rather than Afghan, law. A dispute over legal jurisdiction derailed similar security negotiations with Iraq and resulted in no U.S. forces in that country after combat troops withdrew.
The draft document would give the U.S. the right, as expected, to deploy American forces on nine bases, including the two biggest, the airfields in Bagram and Kandahar. It also would allow U.S. military planes to fly in and out of Afghanistan from seven air bases, including Kabul International Airport.
U.S. forces would be permitted under the document to transport supplies from five border crossings, described along with the air bases as "official points of embarkation and debarkation."
All bases in Afghanistan would revert to Afghan ownership and sovereignty after 2014, according to the draft.
Karzai had demanded a full-fledged defense treaty, with the U.S. obliged to respond militarily to aggression by other nations, specifically Pakistan. The draft instead says the U.S. will regard any external aggression with "grave concern" and will "strongly oppose" military threats or force against Afghanistan after 2014.