KABUL/WASHINGTON Last-minute efforts to finalize a security pact between the United States and Afghanistan were clouded on Tuesday by differences over whether President Barack Obama had agreed to issue a letter acknowledging U.S. mistakes made during the 12-year war.
The Afghan government said it received assurances that such a letter would be provided this week to a grand council of Afghan elders. But Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, insisted that such an offer - which would draw criticism from Republicans and anger American war veterans - is "not on the table."
A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said an Obama letter was part of talks on a long-sought security pact that would allow a residual force of U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry overcame the main stumbling blocks to an agreement in a telephone call on Tuesday but the State Department said some issues still had to be resolved before a final draft can be presented to the Loya Jirga, a gathering of Afghan tribal and political leaders that will meet in Kabul starting on Thursday.
Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, said the two sides agreed on provisions giving U.S. troops immunity from Afghan law and allowing them to enter Afghan homes in exceptional circumstances, something the Afghan president had resisted.
Faizi said the accord - which must now be approved by the Loya Jirga - was partly due to a promise that Obama would give a written admission of U.S. military errors in a war that has claimed many civilian casualties in addition to combatants.
"Both sides agreed that Obama send a letter ... assuring the president and the people of Afghanistan that the right to enter into Afghan homes by U.S. forces and the extraordinary circumstances will not be misused," Faizi said in Kabul.
"The whole idea of having a letter was to acknowledge the suffering of the Afghan people and the mistakes of the past. That was the only thing that satisfied the president," Faizi added.
But Rice denied any such U.S. intention.
"No such letter has been drafted or delivered," she told CNN. "There is not a need for the United States to apologize to Afghanistan. Quite the contrary. We have sacrificed and supported them in their democratic progress and in tackling the insurgency and al Qaeda."
"APOLOGIZE FOR WHAT?"
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent critic of Obama's foreign policy, said: "I'm stunned. Apologize for what?"
"Maybe we should get the Afghan president to apologize to the American soldiers for all the hardship he's created for them," Graham told Reuters. "And maybe President Karzai should apologize to the Afghan people for poor leadership and corruption."
A senior State Department official suggested that Karzai and Kerry had discussed a possible letter, but it was unclear to what extent if any that would entail acknowledging U.S. military errors.
Karzai invited Kerry to attend the Loya Jirga, but when the top U.S. diplomat declined due to scheduling reasons the Afghan president asked for reassurances he could offer the council on the nature of the future security relationship that would also address civilian casualties, the official said.
Kerry suggested outlining the U.S. position in a letter. When Karzai asked if the letter could come from Obama, Kerry said he would check, the official added.
It was the latest misunderstanding between the two governments, which have a long history of mistrust.
Without an accord on the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement, the United States has warned it could pull out all its troops at the end of next year and leave Afghan forces to fight alone against a resilient Taliban-led insurgency.
Two years ago, Washington ended its military mission in Iraq with a similar "zero option" outcome that led to the withdrawal of all of its troops after the failure of talks.
Karzai had often objected to a security pact that gives U.S. forces the authority to raid Afghan homes and granting immunity from Afghan prosecution, but Washington has said such provisions are crucial for its troops to remain in the country beyond 2014,
when most foreign troops are due to leave.
Faizi said the exact wording of a draft security pact was discussed in the phone call with Kerry and agreed upon.
"This will be finalized later this evening and hopefully by tomorrow morning our time the language will be finalized and we will have one version, one language in the document. In addition to that we will have a letter from the U.S. president," he said.
U.S. officials took a more cautious tack. "There are still some final issues that we are working through," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington.
Security was tight in Kabul ahead of the Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan grand assembly convened to debate matters of national importance, following a suicide bomb attack outside the tent over the weekend.
"The Loya Jirga is crucial for the future of our country," said Farhad Sediqqi, a member of parliament who will attend the assembly. "Afghanistan needs to have a partnership and a pact with the United States."
The meeting comes at a critical juncture for Afghanistan ahead of a presidential election next year and growing anxiety about security as foreign troops prepare to leave.
A security pact would clear the way for a decision on how many troops to keep in Afghanistan. U.S. officials said during a meeting of NATO defense ministers in February that the alliance was considering keeping a residual force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops. The Obama administration has been discussing keeping 3,000 to 9,000 U.S. troops as part of that.
Karzai floated the idea of a grand council to muster popular support for a security deal opposed by many Afghan politicians and others.
In the city of Jalalabad, hundreds of students rallied against the pact on Tuesday chanting "Death to America, death to Karzai, long live the Islamic Emirates of the Taliban!"
The Taliban have been waging an insurgency against Karzai and his foreign backers, to force out foreign troops, since 2001 and some fear the Afghan security forces will struggle once most foreign troops leave next year.
The war has grown more deadly as international military bases have shut down. Over the past month, over 160 people have been killed and more than 300 more wounded in attacks by the Taliban, the Ministry of Interior said on Tuesday.
Delegates attending the grand assembly appear to be divided on the pact and much will rest on Karzai's opening speech on Thursday, with many likely to take their cue from him.
(Additional reporting by Dylan Welch, Matt Spetalnick, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason; Mirwais Harooni, Patricia Zengerle and Adrian Croft; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu)