KABUL Afghanistan and the United States reached a deal on Sunday to curb night raids on Afghan homes, giving Kabul a veto over the operations despised by most local people and clearing the way for a wider pact securing a U.S. presence.
Night raids on suspected militants have helped fan rising anti-Western sentiment ahead of a withdrawal by most Western combat troops to be completed by 2014, but are backed by NATO commanders as a key anti-insurgent tactic.
Their conduct had been one of the biggest hurdles in negotiations on a broader strategic pact governing a future U.S. role in the country, including advisers and special forces soldiers to help safeguard stability for at least a decade.
The deal, which has taken months of negotiation, was signed by Afghan Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak and NATO's top commander in the country, U.S. Marine General John Allen.
"Today we are one step closer to the establishment of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership. Most importantly, today we are one step closer to our shared goal and vision of a secure and sovereign Afghanistan," Allen said at the deal's signing.
Under the agreement, Afghan authorities will have control over prisoners taken in night raids and decide whether to allow U.S. interrogators access to detainees.
An Afghan judge would also have to grant a warrant approving operations, although the document said Afghan authorities would have to set up judicial processes "capable of issuing timely and operationally secure judicial authorizations".
Analysts have warned that stronger curbs on night raids for quick-reaction NATO forces could hamper operations and reduce the impact of one of the most effective anti-insurgent tactics, a prospect which will privately worry NATO commanders.
U.S. troops will continue to take part in operations, but a new elite force of Afghan special operations commandos will lead raids with American forces along to give advice and support.
"From now on all night raids will be conducted by the Afghan national army, police and intelligence in close coordination with Afghan judicial bodies," Afghan Defense Minister Wardak told a news conference.
The United States would provide all necessary equipment and technical advice to Afghan special operations forces, the document said.
Many Afghans, in complaints backed by President Hamid Karzai, say the raids violate their privacy, especially that of women in conservative areas, where support for the ethnic Pashtun-dominated Taliban is strongest.
Only Afghan forces, the document said, would be able to search residential homes or compounds, while Afghan police and soldiers would have to protect women and children, as well as culturally sensitive places.
A joint U.S.-Afghan committee will decide which raids to carry out and an Afghan judge must then review its recommendation and decide whether to issue a warrant.
There is also growing sensitivity over the presence of foreign troops after a series on incidents, including the massacre of 17 Afghan villagers for which a U.S. soldier was charged, and the burning of copies of the Koran at a NATO base.
The two countries last month signed a deal transferring a major U.S.-run prison to Afghan authority, leaving military raids of Afghan homes as the primary sticking point to achieving a broader strategic partnership deal.
Jawed Ludin, the deputy foreign minister and top negotiator in talks on the strategic deal, said on Saturday both sides had failed to communicate the benefits of the pact and dampen anxiety that foreigners were preparing to abandon the country.
The United States has been pressing to wrap up the long-delayed strategic partnership deal with Afghanistan ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago in May while at the same time trying to draw the Taliban and other insurgents into peace talks.
Ludin said when the night raids deal was concluded, work would start immediately on the wider security pact, which will require a vote of approval in the fractious Afghan parliament.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kimball; Editing by Rob Taylor and Ron Popeski)