Deal Close on Night Raids, US and Afghan Officials Say

Kabul, Afghanistan – After years of insisting that American forces end covert nighttime raids on Afghan homes, President Hamid Karzai’s government was close to completing a deal that would give the Afghan authorities legal oversight of the raids, while allowing American forces to retain a guiding role in conducting them, officials from both countries said Tuesday.

The night raids’ deep unpopularity with the Afghan public has long put Mr. Karzai at odds with his American backers, who say the operations are among the most effective tools they have to combat the Taliban.

An agreement on the raids, after months of sometimes contentious negotiations, would allow Kabul and Washington to move toward completion of a broader pact that lays out the strategic relationship between the two countries after the official end of the NATO combat mission here in 2014. Afghan and American officials hope to have that broader agreement concluded in time for a NATO summit meeting planned for May in Chicago.

The deal that is nearing completion would give Afghan military forces a lead role in all the raids — officials say they already take part in most of them — and would also bring the operations under Afghan legal jurisdiction by requiring a court warrant within 48 hours of a raid in order to continue detention of any suspects, according to American and Afghan officials close to the negotiations.

Most of the officials commented on the condition of anonymity because the agreement had not been concluded.

At the same time, it would include a series of face-saving compromises to allow American forces to retain the freedom of action that commanders believe is necessary for the operations to remain effective. The raids would still rely heavily on American intelligence, and most would include American or allied forces for the foreseeable future, the officials said.

“We are very close to signing” an agreement on the raids, said Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai. He said an agreement could come before the end of the week, and that it would “make sure that all nighttime raids are conducted fully in accordance with the laws of Afghanistan.”

As late as Tuesday afternoon, the two sides thought they had reached agreement, and Afghan and American officials were making preparations for a signing ceremony on Wednesday.

But the plans were put on hold on Tuesday evening after a last-minute dispute over whether the Afghans or Americans would hold people detained in the raids after a warrant was granted, the officials said.

American officials have pushed to retain custody of the detainees for a limited time so they could be interrogated, the officials said. The interrogations are an important source of intelligence that American officials said they were not yet ready to give up.

Neither Afghan nor American officials would say how long the Americans wanted to keep the detainees. It also was not clear where American forces would hold them, since the United States agreed last month to hand over its main prison here to Afghan authorities within six months.

An agreement on night raids, coming on the heels of the prison deal, would go a long way toward restoring trust that has broken down between the two governments after a string of recent crises, including the killing of Afghan civilians by an American soldier on March 16.

That rampage prompted Mr. Karzai to renew his longstanding calls for an end to night raids, which he has argued violate Afghan culture and values. While American officials have insisted that the killings were part of an isolated criminal act under cover of darkness, not a night raid, the distinction is not shared by most Afghans, including Mr. Karzai.

He has portrayed it as the latest in a long string of episodes where coalition forces have killed innocent Afghans. But Afghan and American officials said Tuesday that Mr. Karzai understood the importance of preserving the ability of Afghan and American forces to conduct the raids.

Coalition forces have come to increasingly rely on them in recent years, as they seek to kill or capture midlevel insurgents and, in the process, separate foot soldiers from the Taliban’s top leadership.

Finding a way to continue the raids is also considered essential for the post-2014 plan that is shaping up. The plan, in essence, envisions the United States’ leaving behind a small force that would focus on counterterrorism. For that kind of mission to work, the force would probably need to be able to carry out night raids.

Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington.