Kerry admits Afghanistan 'mistakes'
US secretary of state John Kerry has admitted "mistakes" and asked President Hamid Karzai to allow American forces to enter Afghan homes in "exceptional circumstances" as the two sides move to finalise the wording of a security agreement.
Deep divisions in Afghanistan over legal immunity for American soldiers and contractors, as well as night raids, have threatened to derail diplomatic efforts to keep thousands of American soldiers in the country beyond next year's withdrawal deadline. The issue has taken on added urgency amid a rise in violence that has raised fears the Afghan forces are not ready to take over the battle against the Taliban and al Qaida-linked militants without more training.
Night raids by American forces have been one of the touchiest issues in the 12-year-old war and an agreement to allow them to continue, even on a conditional basis, would clear a major obstacle that has held up the pact. US officials said Mr Karzai had conceded that the Americans could maintain exclusive legal jurisdiction over US soldiers and contractors after 2014 as part of the deal.
The US would not release specific details about the negotiations and stressed nothing was final until the gathering of tribal elders, known as the Loya Jirga, makes its decision on the agreement. US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the two sides continued to make progress, but "we're not there yet".
Approval by the traditional council of 3,000 prominent Afghans that begins tomorrow is by no means guaranteed. The group can revise or reject any clause of the draft agreement, and a flat-out rejection would most likely prevent the Afghan government from signing it. Even if it is approved, the final decision will be made by parliament.
The US wants to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country to train and mentor the Afghan national security forces and go after the remnants of al Qaida. If no security agreement is signed, all US troops would have to leave by the end of 2014.
Many American allies have also indicated they will not keep troops in Afghanistan if there is no US presence. Billions of dollars in funding for Afghan forces and development will probably also be at stake. Afghan security forces are generally considered to be not yet fully prepared to fight the Taliban without further foreign training and international funding.
A Dari-language statement from Mr Karzai's office said Mr Kerry asked the president to allow US troops on counter-terrorism missions to conduct operations that might require entering Afghan homes in "exceptional" circumstances.
Mr Karzai agreed to include the wording if Mr Kerry defended it at the Loya Jirga debate. Otherwise the Afghan leader told him to wait and negotiate the final agreement with the new government following next year's elections. Mr Karzai is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.
In response, Mr Kerry told Mr Karzai that the US government understood that the concerns of both the government and the Afghan people stemmed from "mistakes committed by American forces in the past in Afghanistan", according to the statement.
The top US diplomat also promised his government would write a letter detailing what would constitute "exceptional" and offering guarantees that Mr Kerry would address concerns and objections based on past US behaviour.
A senior State Department official said that during their telephone call, Mr Karzai asked for reassurances that he could communicate to the elders at the gathering regarding the security relationship with the US going forward and addressing past issues, such as civilian casualties.
The official said Mr Kerry told Mr Karzai that the US would consider the Afghan president's request for reassurances, including the option of a letter from the Obama administration stating the United States' position.
Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, said the prospect of Mr Obama apologising to Mr Karzai "is not on the table".
"There is no need for the United States to apologise to Afghanistan," she said in an interview with CNN.
The deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of US-led Nato forces have been a sensitive issue in the US-Afghanistan relationship, although more Afghan civilians die as a result of insurgent attacks.
The official said that during the call, both Mr Kerry and Mr Karzai agreed on a need to finalise a bilateral security agreement. Mr Karzai invited Mr Kerry to attend the Loya Jirga, which will be held amid tight security, but Mr Kerry said it would not be possible for him to attend.
Many Afghans are angry over incidents including the February 2012 accidental burning of hundreds of copies of the Koran, a March 2012 shooting spree by a US soldier in southern Afghanistan that killed 16 people, and unintended civilian deaths from US bombs.
The night raids are particularly offensive because they are perceived as violating the sanctity of women in the house despite US claims that they are a useful tool in killing insurgent leaders.
The other sticking point is legal immunity - an issue that was a deal breaker during failed negotiations over a similar deal in Iraq before US forces withdrew in December 2011.