U.S., Afghanistan near deal on night raids: official
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Afghan officials are close to a deal to change the way night raids are conducted in Afghanistan, giving Afghan security forces the lead role and providing judicial oversight of a practice hated by Afghans but seen as effective by American forces, a U.S. defense official said on Tuesday.
The deal is expected to help clear the way for a broader strategic partnership agreement that will govern the U.S. presence in Afghanistan once Afghan forces take full responsibility for security by the end of 2014.
The U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said an agreement on setting parameters for the night raids could come as early as this week.
There was general acceptance on both sides that Afghans should take the lead role in any night raids and that there should be some form of warrant system to give Afghans judicial oversight of the process, the official said.
But some differences remain over issues related to the detention of people for interrogation, the official said.
Afghanistan's constitution requires a judge to approve house searches by security forces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been pressing for an end to the night raids in negotiations with the United States, has said some raids have violated Afghan sovereignty.
The United States has been pressing to wrap up the long-delayed strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
The two countries last month signed an agreement transferring a major U.S.-run prison to Afghan authority, leaving military raids of Afghan homes in the middle of the night as the primary sticking point to achieving a broader strategic partnership deal.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a NATO meeting in Norfolk, Virginia, on Tuesday that the United States hoped to use the Chicago summit to develop unified, long-term support for Afghanistan's security forces. She repeated that U.S. and other foreign forces would begin to step back from combat operations in 2013.
"By the end of 2014, the transition of security leadership will be complete, and Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of Afghanistan," Clinton said.
"We anticipate that a small number of forces will remain, at the invitation of the Afghan government, for the purpose of training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and continuing to pursue counter-terrorism operations," Clinton said.
"But we do not seek permanent American military bases in Afghanistan or a presence that would be considered a threat."
Clinton acknowledged that U.S. relations with Afghanistan have at times been rocky.
U.S. officials have described the night raids as an unpopular but extremely effective tactic against Taliban militants and their allies.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told a news conference on Tuesday the United States and Afghanistan were "making progress and heading toward an agreement on this and a broad range of other issues."
He declined to elaborate on the content and scope of the prospective agreement.
"This has been a concern of the Afghan government for some time. We recognize that. We recognize the effectiveness, as well, that the night operations have had over time. And that's why we're working through an agreement with our Afghan partners," Little said.
He noted about half of night operations currently are led by Afghan security forces and that most take place without a shot being fired. But he said it was important to reach a written understanding on how operations should be handled in the future.
"This will be, at the end of the day, something that they're responsible for ... as part of the transition process. And codifying that, we think, could benefit Afghanistan, the United States and our coalition partners," Little said. "It makes sense."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Warren Strobel and Will Dunham)
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