The U.S. and the Afghan governments are considering pushing through a long-delayed partnership agreement by moving the contentious issues of night raids and control over detainees to separate negotiations, officials from both countries said.
The two governments have been working for about a year to nail down the terms of a strategic partnership document that would govern U.S. operations in Afghanistan after 2014, when the Afghan government is expected to take charge of security countrywide.
The pact is expected to provide for several thousand U.S. troops to stay in the country to train Afghan forces and help with counterterrorism operations. It will outline the legal status of those forces in Afghanistan, their operating rules and where they will be based.
The agreement is seen as key to assuring the Afghan people that the U.S. does not plan to abandon the country, even as its draws down troops and cuts aid funding.
Both sides also hope it will settle several divisive issues over how American troops will operate in Afghanistan.
A major stumbling point arose when Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded control over detainees and an end to unpopular night raids by U.S. troops as a condition of the pact. The U.S. has said that night raids are a key part of its strategy in Afghanistan. The Obama administration also has said that the Afghan judicial system is not yet capable of taking over responsibility for dangerous battlefield detainees.
The impasse has threatened to derail the accord, which both sides say they want to sign before a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
To break the stalemate, the two governments have agreed in principle that "the transfer of detention facilities and night operations to Afghan lead and control will be dealt with separately as short-term issues," said an Afghan official familiar with the talks.
A U.S. official confirmed that the two sides have discussed splitting the negotiations along the same lines and that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would agree to the split if necessary.
However, Panetta still prefers one comprehensive package and is pushing to find a way to settle everything together in one document, the official said.
Both the Afghan and U.S. officials spoke anonymously to discuss ongoing negotiations.
To split the negotiations would be a change of stance for Karzai, who has taken a strong position on issues which his government says are linked to Afghanistan's national sovereignty.
"The two obstacles which are in front of this document are the night raids and the issue of the prison," said Emal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai. "We want to have an agreement on these issues before signing the document."
Karzai's deputy national security adviser also said that he cannot see an acceptable way of separating the issues.
"Ensuring Afghan sovereignty is on the top of our objectives ... Addressing night raids and detentions are the core issues of this document," Shaida Mohammad Abdali said.
Karzai is standing firm publicly. On detainees, he has set a deadline of March 9 for the Americans to transfer control of their main prison in the country _ the Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins Bagram Air Field in eastern Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the U.S. detention operation said such dates are targets.
The date for handing over the Parwan facility "has always been 'conditions based,'" said Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the task force overseeing U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan. He said that the U.S. will hand over the Parwan prison once it has decided that the Afghan government has the "capacity to effectively handle the operations conducted at the facility."
Meanwhile, the Americans have stood strong on the need for night raids, saying that the operations are one of its most effective tools for finding and capturing insurgents, especially with fewer traditional forces.
Karzai has said that Afghans should be the only ones doing night raids because the invasion of privacy from troops entering a families' home is compounded when the soldiers are Westerners. He has also said that too many of these night raids have resulted in civilian deaths.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.