By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - U.S.-Afghan talks on a judicial veto for Kabul over military raids on Afghan homes at night could delay anti-insurgent operations and curb the use of what coalition generals see as one of their most effective weapons, senior Afghan officials said.
Night raids seeking suspected militants, hated by most Afghans but supported by NATO as a counter-insurgency tactic, are seen as the biggest hurdle in negotiations on a broader strategic pact that will underpin a future U.S. troop presence.
U.S. and Afghan authorities are close to a deal that would see Afghan special forces soldiers take the lead in the raids and require judicial approval before operations could be carried out.
"Afghans will be very cautious to put more effort into protecting civilians during raids, not necessarily doing more raids," a senior Afghan official said. "By the time the warrant is issued and it's reviewed, it may have less effect."
"The remaining issue is that we want to have the prisoners we take from night raids but the Americans want to keep them for an indefinite time for interrogation," the source said.
A security official, who could not be named due to the sensitivity of negotiations, said there would be an announcement soon.
The talks come amid heightened worries over the ability of Afghan security personnel to combat the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
There is also growing sensitivity over the presence of foreign troops after a series on incidents including the massacre of 17 Afghan villagers for which a U.S. soldier was charged and the burning of copies of the Koran at a NATO base.
Afghanistan, which earlier had sought a blanket ban on the night raids by foreign troops, says it is ready to consider them as long as they are "Afghanized" or conducted by Afghan forces in accordance with the laws of the country.
Any delay in night raids making them less effective is likely to worry NATO commanders rushing to improve security ahead of a withdrawal by most Western combat troops in 2014, but a backlash by Afghans against civilian deaths means foreign troops have little wriggle room.
The Afghan constitution requires a judge to approve house searches by security forces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had been pressing for an end to the night raids, has said some raids have violated Afghan sovereignty.
"Getting a warrant letter from judge or a court in the middle of the night when the raid is needed is impossible. How can you bring a judge in the middle to order a night raid," analyst Wahid Mujdha said.
"The insurgents are not going to stay for a judge to order a night raid, they are on the move and by the time you issue a warrant, they won't be in that location."
The United States has been pressing to wrap up the long-delayed partnership pact with Afghanistan ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago in May. The two countries have already signed a deal transferring a major U.S.-run prison to Afghan authority.
"We're ready to take the lead of such operations but we're lacking the necessary equipment to conduct night raids on our own," Afzal Aman, operations chief for the Afghan army, said.
"In terms of moving the troops from one place to another, gathering intelligence and locating the target, we still need our allies to help us," he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jack Kimball, Editing by Rob Taylor and Alison Williams)