The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, left, and Afghan Defense… (Massoud Hossaini, AFP/Getty…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — Tackling one of the major sources of friction in Washington's tenuous relationship with Kabul, U.S. officials on Sunday signed an agreement that gives Afghan authorities legal and operational oversight over nighttime raids carried out by American troops — a tactic that has been successful against Taliban insurgents but deeply unpopular with Afghan citizens.
The pact with Afghan officials was hailed at a signing ceremony in Kabul, the capital, as an important steppingstone toward an overarching strategic partnership agreement that will govern the relationship between the two countries after U.S. troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
That broader agreement is expected to address issues such as the number of U.S. counter-terrorism forces that will be deployed in Afghanistan after American troops leave and the size of Afghan security forces that Western nations will help fund at a time when many of those countries face a troubled economic climate.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai had called for an end to the U.S. night raids, and discord over the controversial tactic had threatened to derail momentum toward the partnership pact, which Afghan and U.S. leaders would like to wrap up in time for a planned NATO summit next month in Chicago.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, called the signing of the night raids agreement "a landmark day for the rule of law in Afghanistan.
"This means that Afghan security forces operating under Afghan law will now be responsible for capturing and detaining the terrorists who try to kill and wound the innocent people of Afghanistan every day," added Allen, who signed the pact along with Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak. "And Afghan judges will prosecute and try these terrorists in accordance with the rule of law."
The night raids, which are carried out without warning on private residences, are deeply resented by Afghans, who see troops entering their homes at night as a blatant violation of their country's conservative social norms. U.S. military leaders, however, have deemed the tactic extremely effective in rooting out Taliban insurgents and commanders.
The raids were just one source of tension in a difficult U.S.-Afghan partnership that has rapidly deteriorated with the slayings of 17 Afghan civilians in Kandahar province last month, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, and the discovery of the burning of copies of the Koran at a U.S. air base north of Kabul in February.
Under the agreement, a special panel made up of members of Afghan security bodies will authorize all future night raids. Afghan special operations forces will take the lead in night raid operations, with U.S. troops taking on a support role.
Only Afghan troops will be allowed to search private homes and compounds, and U.S. forces cannot enter the homes unless their Afghan counterparts ask them to do so, according to the pact.
The U.S. agreed to continue to provide the training and logistics to increase the size of Afghan special operations forces. The planning and execution of future raids will still rely heavily on U.S. intelligence.
Questions loom over the reliability of Afghan security forces at a time when the U.S. is trying to shift more of the burden for securing the country to Afghan troops and police. Washington has grown increasingly concerned about Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces and the growing number of Afghan police officers and soldiers who turn their guns on U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops. However, Allen expressed confidence in the capabilities of Afghan special forces.
"I have seen the Afghan special forces in action," Allen said. "I have seen their capabilities and their commitment. I can tell you firsthand that Afghanistan is well on the way to fielding the very finest special operations forces in the region."
The night raids issue was one of two major obstacles impeding progress on the strategic partnership agreement. The other was resolved last month when U.S. and Afghan officials signed an accord transferring authority over the detention of suspected insurgents to the Afghan government. That agreement sets a timetable for Afghan authorities to assume control over jails for Afghan detainees.
Times staff writer Rodriguez reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, and special correspondent Baktash from Kabul.