KABUL, Afghanistan — In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed that Kerry would request a letter from President Obama acknowledging the suffering of Afghan civilians caused by U.S. military raids on Afghan homes in recent years, according to Karzai's spokesman.
Kerry agreed to take the proposal to Obama as a way to break an impasse that is holding up the signing of a bilateral security agreement that would define the U.S.-Afghan partnership after international combat forces leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the spokesman said.
Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman, told reporters at a late-night briefing here that American officials agreed to language in the draft of the agreement to allow U.S. forces that remain after 2014 to enter Afghan homes for military purposes only under what he termed "extraordinary circumstances" and only when the lives of those forces were at risk.
Along with military advisors that will train Afghan security forces and assist with logistics, the U.S. wants to keep an unspecified number of special operations troops for counter-terrorism missions.
"The whole idea of having a letter was to acknowledge the suffering of the Afghan people and the mistakes of the past," Faizi said. "That was the only thing that satisfied the [Afghan] president."
A U.S. Embassy spokesman, Robert B. Hilton, declined to comment, citing embassy policy of not discussing ongoing negotiations.
[Updated 1:10 p.m. PDT Nov. 19: In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: "We don't comment on presidential correspondence, and I don't have any specifics on any language of a letter that hasn't been written. More broadly, I would reiterate that we take every precaution to prevent civilian casualties, and we always express regret when civilians are killed. This is not a new issue in our relationship. It's one we've discussed openly in the past, and it's one we continue to work through."]
So-called "night raids" by U.S. special operations forces have in some instances caused civilian casualties that have outraged Afghans and triggered emotional public outbursts from Karzai. Even more than the volatile issue of legal jurisdiction for U.S. troops accused of crimes in Afghanistan, the night raid issue has emerged as the prime threat to any deal on a post-2014 security agreement.
Afghanistan has insisted that any such raids be carried out by Afghan security forces. The U.S., concerned that Afghanistan might again become a haven for Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups after combat forces depart, has sought to have its own forces directly involved.
If Obama agrees to the letter, which Faizi said would also include a promise for a "different environment" for U.S. forces during any post-2014 operations in Afghan residential areas, Karzai would present the letter and the draft agreement to a special assembly of Afghan notables set to begin Thursday.
The five-day assembly, known as a loya jirga, was convened by Karzai, who said he wanted to consult with representatives of the Afghan people about whether to sign the security agreement. The Afghan president has indicated that he will not sign the pact unless it is approved by the loya jirga, a strictly advisory body but one with a lasting tribal tradition in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s elected parliament must approve the security pact, and Karzai himself will have the final say. The U.S. has threatened to exercise a "zero option" if agreement is not reached, deploying no troops here after 2014 — a move that would almost certainly result in severe cuts in U.S. military and reconstruction aid.
Faizi said Karzai made two proposals to Kerry in the phone conversation. Under one plan, Karzai would present the loya jirga with a draft security document reflecting both the U.S. and the Afghan positions on U.S. raids in Afghan residential areas — and ask delegates to choose one. Under the other option, the U.S. and Afghanistan would wait until a new Afghan president is elected in April and resume negotiations then.
Kerry rejected both proposals, Faizi said. Instead, the secretary of State proposed that he write a letter acknowledging civilian suffering and avoid such mistakes in the future, according to Faizi.
Karzai then proposed that the letter come directly from Obama, and Kerry agreed to take the proposal to the White House. Faizi did not elaborate on the possible wording of the letter.
Meanwhile, Faizi said, U.S. and Afghan diplomats began work late Tuesday on language in the draft agreement addressing restrictions on U.S. forces in Afghan residential areas after 2014.
The loya jirga, which has snarled traffic and shut down Kabul for a five-day holiday declared by Karzai’s government, has been criticized by many Afghans as a waste of time and resources that usurps parliament’s authority. Some analysts and Afghan politicians have said Karzai is using the assembly for political cover so that he cannot be accused of unilaterally agreeing to a deal with the U.S.
A collapse of the security agreement would likely end any prospects of a continued NATO mission after 2014. It would probably also prompt reduced operations by international aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations that have worked under the security protections provided by the presence of U.S. and international combat forces for nearly 12 years.