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.
Deep divisions in Afghanistan over legal immunity for American soldiers and contractors as well as night raids have threatened to derail diplomatic efforts to keep thousands of American soldiers in the country beyond next year's withdrawal deadline. The issue has taken on added urgency amid a spike in violence that has raised fears the Afghan forces aren't ready to take over the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaida linked militants without more training.
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.
The U.S. wants to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country to train and mentor the Afghan national security forces and go after the remnants of al-Qaida. If no security agreement is signed, all U.S. troops would have to leave by the end of 2014.
Many American allies have also indicated they will not keep troops in Afghanistan if there is no U.S. presence. Billions of dollars in funding for Afghan forces and development will also likely be at stake. Afghan security forces are generally considered to be not yet fully prepared to fight the Taliban without further foreign training and international funding.
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, which will be held amid tight security.