Washington, DC – Accelerating the transition of military responsibility to the Afghan government, the United States agreed Sunday to hand control of special operations missions to Afghan forces, including night raids, relegating American troops to a supporting role and bringing the raids under Afghan judicial authority.
The deal clears the way for the two countries to move ahead with a more comprehensive partnership agreement that will establish the shape of American support to Afghanistan after the 2014 troop withdrawal deadline. And it resolves one of the most contentious issues for President Hamid Karzai, who faced intense domestic political pressure because of night raids’ deep unpopularity here, even as American commanders had insisted they were the linchpin of the military mission in Afghanistan.
As recently as a year ago, American commanders expressed reservations about giving up nearly any measure of control over the raids. Since then, the relationship between the two countries has been reconfigured by a series of diplomatic crises and the American public’s growing fatigue for the war, lending an increasing sense of imminence to the troop withdrawal.
At the same time, the United States has mounted an intense effort to move Afghan special operations forces to the fore, even as questions remain about the overall readiness of Afghan troops.
At a signing ceremony in the capital, Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Afghan defense minister, and Gen. John R. Allen, the American commander here, hailed the agreement as a positive sign of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and the growing abilities of its special operations forces.
“This is an important step in strengthening the sovereignty of Afghanistan,” Mr. Wardak said, adding that it was “a national goal” and “a wish of the Afghan people” that raids be conducted and controlled by Afghans.
The memorandum of understanding signed on Sunday gives Afghan forces the lead role in night raid operations against suspected insurgents, and also requires an Afghan court warrant within 72 hours of a raid. A warrant can be issued after a raid only in cases where the intelligence needed to be acted on immediately, otherwise it must be executed in advance, according to Afghan officials.
Under the terms of the agreement, Afghan forces can still call on American troops for help and authorize them to enter Afghan residences and private compounds. The agreement covers all night raids carried out by special operations forces. However, a small number of night operations are conducted under other auspices, including special C.I.A.-trained units, that are not covered by the agreement, military and civilian officials said.
American officials close to the negotiations said that under the agreement, an interministry Afghan command center with representatives of the Defense and Interior Ministries, as well as the National Directorate of Security — the Afghan intelligence agency — would review or develop information about potential targets in consultation with Americans, who would continue to provide extensive intelligence support.
The interministry group would then decide whether to go after a target and send Afghan special operations forces to carry out the raid. The Afghans can request American assistance at any point in the operation — for intelligence, for backup military support, air support, medical evacuation and post-operation intelligence gathering.
Afghan officials said that the Americans would not have the right to question detainees. Currently, they can question detainees and hold them indefinitely without trial. In practice, however, Americans might well be called on “to assist in an investigation,” said a United States official. The official emphasized that the relationship between Afghan and American troops was “not an adversarial one,” and United States officials did not appear to be worried that Americans would be denied access to detainees.
Several diplomats said that the most important aspect of the agreement, which goes into effect immediately, was that the two countries could take the next steps to complete the transition to Afghan control and allow foreign forces to leave the country.
“There’s still work to be done, but clearly we have some critical momentum now,” Ryan C. Crocker, the United States ambassador to Afghanistan, said as he left the signing ceremony.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta “sees this important agreement as a sign of progress in the transition process, and as a key indicator of the enhanced capabilities of Afghan forces,” said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary.
While the deal underscores the continuing diminution of American power here, the fact is that the United States and other allied countries still pay nearly all of the costs of Afghan security forces. That means the West will retain considerable leverage for some time to come, officials here said.
“The Americans are not giving up a huge amount,” one Western official said. “And if they are paying $4.1 billion a year for the Afghan military, if they want permission to question someone, I think they’ll get it,” the official added, referring to the approximate amount Western countries are expected to agree to contribute annually to cover Afghan security costs after 2014.
Still, an American military official involved in the negotiations described the agreement as “a paradigm shift” that substantially changed who was in charge, although the official emphasized that Afghan and American officers worked as a team, sitting side by side in an operations center, sharing intelligence and decision-making responsibilities on most targets.
In recent testimony before Congress, General Allen repeatedly assured lawmakers that an agreement would not weaken the pressure on important terrorist and insurgent leaders who have been the target of the raids. Providing new details, he said that Afghan forces took part in most of the 2,200 night operations last year, and, in practice, led many of them. He also said that civilian casualties occurred in less than 1.5 percent of the missions.
But public outrage has focused not only on civilian deaths but also on the invasion by foreign soldiers of private homes, in particular those where women and children are living. On that count, the agreement is a significant victory for Mr. Karzai, because he has long argued that the sense of outrage and violation was a pressing reason for an Afghan takeover of the raids.
With this agreement and the one reached on March 9 that laid out a six-month timetable for handing over detention operations to the Afghans, the strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan can now go forward.
The two governments were to spend the next several weeks completing the partnership document, which would commit the United States to a 10-year involvement in Afghanistan that includes support of an array of civilian efforts including economic development and education. The Afghans and the Americans have wanted to have that agreement in place before a two-day NATO meeting in Chicago that is scheduled to start on May 20.
The NATO meeting will obligate countries in the coalition with the United States to commit to continuing financial contributions to Afghanistan’s security forces and to training and equipping them. Not yet clear is the size of the Afghan security forces that the NATO countries will support, but almost certainly they will be a substantially smaller army and police force than Afghanistan has today.
The country’s forces currently top 305,000, according to the Afghan Defense and Interior Ministries, and are expected to continue to rise this year to 352,000.
The night raid agreement solves one particularly thorny problem for the Americans, who have taken often-burdensome steps to make sure that when they detained Afghans and transferred them to Afghan custody, they avoided sending them to Afghan holding facilities where there was evidence of human rights abuses, including torture.
Now, Americans will no longer be responsible for detaining people and holding them, and, as a result, will not be implicated in the treatment of detainees. However, United States officials involved in the negotiations said they expected that Americans would continue to provide human rights training to the Afghan security forces.