WASHINGTON/KABUL Afghan President Hamid Karzai may have won a major concession from the United States following a deadly shooting spree by a U.S. soldier, with the Obama administration considering curbs on contentious night raids.
With Karzai demanding a stop to night raids hated by Afghans, but seen by NATO as one of their most effective anti-insurgent tactics, a U.S. official said the United States was looking at modifying them and giving Afghans more oversight.
That would help seal agreement on a strategic pact with Karzai's government for a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond a 2014 deadline for most NATO combat forces to withdraw, allowing advisers and possibly some special forces to stay on.
The Obama government was discussing options with the Afghans including a warrant-based approach or possibly allowing Afghan judges to review raids before they took place, the U.S. official said on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
From the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim said on Tuesday the strategic partnership deal with the United States must be "based on the national interest of Afghanistan" and in accordance with Afghan law.
Karzai this month said not only must night raids by foreign forces halt, but Afghan security forces training to take over their conduct would "not be allowed to enter private homes unless their operations were according to the state law".
That would mean applying for a warrant, he said.
But after the killing last week of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar province, Karzai said he was at "the end of the rope" on the issue of civilian casualties, calling for NATO troops to leave villages and withdraw to major bases.
Anger about the slaughter came after an outcry last month over the burning of copies of the Koran at NATO's main base in the country, sparking a week of rioting that left dozens dead.
DEAL BEFORE SUMMIT?
The two countries earlier signed an agreement on the transfer of a major U.S.-run prison to Afghan authority, leaving military raids on Afghan homes conducted at night as the final sticking point for reaching a deal.
U.S. and Afghan officials are hopeful of signing the deal ahead of a summit in Chicago in late May, where NATO nations are expected to outline their path out of the decade-old Afghan war and agree on backing for Afghan security forces.
Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said no decisions had been made in discussions about the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement, which will be mirrored by similar but less crucial agreements with other NATO nations.
"Discussions with the Afghans continue on this issue. No final arrangements have been settled," Kirby said.
While the bilateral agreement is expected to authorize in principle a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, details of that presence, which will be focused on counter-terrorism and advising local forces, would likely be nailed down in a separate "status of forces" agreement.
Karzai's spokesman told Afghan television on Sunday that U.S. and Afghan officials were still discussing the possibility of having permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, another highly sensitive issue.
Nearly 11 years after the Taliban government was toppled after the September 11 attacks, the United States and its allies continue to face major problems in Afghanistan, including a resilient insurgency, a weak government, and an uncertain future for Western support.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)