KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — In a phone call Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged "mistakes" and asked Afghan President Hamid Karzai to allow American forces to enter Afghan homes in "exceptional circumstances" as the two sides rushed to finalize the wording of a draft security agreement ahead of a meeting of tribal elders who must approve the deal.
The announcement came as deep divisions in Afghanistan threatened to derail diplomatic efforts to keep thousands of American soldiers in the country beyond next year's withdrawal deadline.
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. U.S. officials said Monday that Karzai had conceded that the Americans could maintain exclusive legal jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers and contractors after 2014 as part of the deal.
The U.S. declined to release specific details about the negotiations and stressed nothing was final until the gathering known as the Loya Jirga makes its decision.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the two sides continue to make progress, but "we're not there yet."
Approval by the traditional council of 3,000 prominent Afghans that begins meeting on Thursday was 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.
A Dari-language statement from Karzai's office said Kerry asked the president to allow U.S. troops on counter-terrorism missions to conduct operations that might require entering Afghan homes in "exceptional" circumstances.
Karzai agreed to include the wording if Kerry defends it at the Loya Jirga debate. Otherwise the Afghan leader told Kerry to wait and negotiate the final agreement with the new government following next year's elections. Karzai is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.
In response Kerry told Karzai that the U.S. 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 U.S. diplomat also promised his government would write a letter detailing what would constitute "exceptional" and offering guarantees that Kerry would address concerns and objections based on past U.S. behavior.
Kerry has no immediate plans to attend the Loya Jirga.
Many Afghans are angry over incidents including the February 2012 accidental burning of hundreds of copies of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, a March 2012 shooting spree by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan that killed 16 people, and unintended civilian deaths from U.S. bombs. The night raids are particularly offensive because they are perceived as violating the sanctity of women in the house despite U.S. 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 U.S. forces withdrew from that country in December 2011.
Karzai's National Security Adviser Rangin Dafdar Spanta told lawmakers at a weekend briefing that the U.S. position was clear: If Washington doesn't get jurisdiction over its soldiers and civilian personnel, it won't sign the agreement, and it won't leave any U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan when international combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
Hakimullah Mujahed, one of the Loya Jirga's organizers, said "the security agreement with the U.S. has to be in the framework of the Afghan constitution."
"The trial of foreign soldiers accused of killing innocent Afghans or committing crimes against Afghanistan should be tried in an Afghan court. That's very important," he added.
Lawmaker Khaled Pashtun from southern Kandahar, where a Taliban insurgency flourishes, disagreed. He said Washington is right to demand jurisdiction over its troops.
"Our justice system is still under construction. … Even Afghans don't trust it yet," he said in a telephone interview.
Pashtun said the government "is so weak" that it hasn't been able to arrest a southern warlord accused of killing 117 civilians.
Spanta told lawmakers that Karzai had also won concessions in the 10-year agreement.
If the pact is passed, U.S. troops will have sole control over Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul, but will share facilities on eight Afghan-run bases throughout the country, Pashtun said.