The United States and Afghanistan are close to an agreement over how to handle the hotly contested issue of night raids but still are at odds over how long coalition forces can detain prisoners, such as those captured during the operations, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.
The agreement would call for the Afghans to take the lead in night operations and set up a timely, warrant-like judicial process for the raids. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
While detention of prisoners remains a sticking point, the official said the U.S. believes the matter can be resolved before long and an agreement could be signed this week.
Afghan officials want detainees to be turned over to Afghanistan authorities immediately after capture. But, the U.S. wants authority to hold them longer, largely because they often can provide key intelligence information about insurgent activities.
It was not immediately clear what time period the U.S. wants the memorandum of understanding to allow for prisoner detention, or if the agreement will spell out a time period rather than tie it to other existing wartime standards.
According to standard operating procedures for NATO troops in Afghanistan, detainees can be held for up to 96 hours. After that the individual must be released or turned over to the Afghans unless a top U.S. or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander approves a longer detention if it is deemed necessary.
The U.S. operates what it has described as temporary holding pens for gathering intelligence from detainees in Afghanistan. Officials have confirmed anonymously that some detainees have been held at these centers for up to nine weeks.
In early March, the U.S. and Afghans reached an agreement on the gradual transfer of control of the main U.S. prison in Afghanistan, giving Americans six months to transfer Parwan's 3,000 Afghan detainees to Afghan control.
Once the new agreement on night raids is signed, the U.S. would have in hand the two key accords they wanted to reach with the Afghans prior to the NATO conference in Chicago. More than 50 heads of state will meet on May 20-21 to discuss progress on ending the war and future strategy, and the documents are expected to form the centerpiece of the summit.
The two documents form the basis of what will eventually evolve into a long-term strategic partnership accord between the U.S. and Afghanistan. The two governments have been working for about a year to nail down the terms of a document that would govern U.S. operations in Afghanistan after 2014, when the Afghan government is expected to take charge of security countrywide.
Afghan leaders have complained repeatedly about the night raids, which they say cause too many civilian deaths. And they say Afghans must have greater control over the operations.
U.S. military leaders argue that the vast majority of the raids are already led by the Afghan security forces. And they say civilian casualties have been very limited.
The new agreement would set up a legal review process for the raids, including a warrant-like procedure that would be done in a timely manner. That process, however, would allow for the review to happen after the raid, rather than before _ a key provision for U.S. officials who worry about information leaking out that can give insurgents a warning that operations are planned.
U.S. commanders say that night operations are critical in rounding up insurgents, including mid-level leaders and Taliban bomb makers. The coalition has said that more than 90 percent of night operations are done alongside Afghan forces, and that Afghans participate in the planning and approval of all of them.
More than 85 percent of the night raids are conducted without any shots fired, the U.S. commanders say. And, as of late last year, the U.S. said that about 1 percent of the night operations resulted in civilian casualties.
The United Nations has reported that 2011 was the deadliest on record for overall civilian casualties in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed as insurgents ratcheted up violence with suicide attacks and roadside bombs.
The U.N. attributed 77 percent of the deaths to insurgent attacks and 14 percent to actions by international and Afghan troops, although those deaths were not limited to night operations. Nine percent of cases were classified as having an unknown cause.