KABUL — Months of fraught negotiations over how a long-term U.S. military force could remain in Afghanistan have suddenly come down to a demand for a single personal gesture: a display of contrition by President Barack Obama for military mistakes that have hurt Afghans.
Afghan officials said Tuesday that, in return for such a letter from Obama, President Hamid Karzai would end his vehement opposition to U.S. counterterrorism raids on private Afghan homes — one of the most contentious issues between allies over a costly dozen-year war — and clear the way for an agreement to keep a smaller U.S. troop force in the country past the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
As described by Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, the letter would be tantamount to an apology, although he did not use that word.
But not even that would be enough to ensure the final passage of a security agreement the United States had pressed to have in hand before next year. The Afghans have made final approval subject to an Afghan grand council of elders, a loya jirga, that is to begin meeting Thursday, and aspects of the security deal remain deeply unpopular with the public.
The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, would not confirm details Tuesday, but he nodded to the potential deal-breaking potential of the meeting. “There are ongoing negotiations,” he said. “I would simply say this agreement is not reached until it goes through the loya jirga.”
The eleventh-hour discussions were the latest lurch in a start-and-stop negotiation that has exposed raw feelings between allies, and has also highlighted Karzai’s taste for public brinkmanship.
Just two days ago, Afghan officials said that the raid issue had created an impasse.
Afghan and U.S. officials said that the potential for breakthrough had been opened by a phone call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Karzai on Tuesday.
According to Faizi, Kerry offered to write a letter assuring the importance of an agreement and acknowledging U.S. mistakes, and Karzai issued a counteroffer: He would compromise if the letter were from Obama instead. Faizi said Kerry had agreed to those terms.
But Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, denied in an interview with CNN on Tuesday night that there would be any presidential apology.
“No such letter has been drafted or delivered,” Rice said. “There is not a need for the United States to apologize to Afghanistan. Quite the contrary. We have sacrificed and supported them in their democratic progress and in tackling the insurgency and al-Qaida.”
A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss continuing negotiations, was more noncommittal, saying that a letter acknowledging past issues such as civilian casualties was a possibility being weighed. “We will consider his request for reassurances, including the option of a letter from the administration stating our position,” the official said.
Under the Afghan description, in return for the letter, Karzai would then accept wording that allowed U.S. special operations raids to search and detain militants within Afghan homes, but only under “extraordinary circumstances” to save the lives of U.S. soldiers. That would seem to greatly hamper the U.S. intent behind those operations, which commanders have said are critical to taking the fight directly to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Among members of the Afghan public, though, foreign raids on private homes are seen as deeply offensive, and the prospect of continued U.S. commando operations after 2014 is unlikely to receive a warm reception from the roughly 3,000 delegates to the loya jirga.
But Faizi said that a letter from Obama would help win critics over. And Afghan political observers have noted that Karzai, who despite his harsh negotiation tactics has repeatedly mentioned the importance of a lasting security deal with the United States, had the power of approval over the delegate list, making it more likely that he could sway the council.
Faizi made it clear that the Afghans had a very detailed understanding of what they expected a letter from Obama to say, and that without that there would be no deal.
The letter would clarify what was meant by “extraordinary circumstances” justifying home raids, and go beyond that as well. “The idea was to indeed mention that there were mistakes made in the conduct of military operations in the past, in the conduct of military operations by United States forces in the last decade, and that Afghans have suffered, and that we understand the pain and therefore we give assurances and make sure those mistakes are not repeated,” Faizi said.
Afghan officials said they expected to see the text of the letter by Wednesday before Karzai signs off on the security agreement.
With one day remaining to finalize the wording of the security agreement before the loya jirga meets, Faizi said that was the remaining issue in talks, carried out in their last phase by Karzai with the U.S. ambassador, James B. Cunningham, and the U.S. military commander, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr.