WASHINGTON -- A last-minute hitch in the agreement over a post-2014 U.S. military presence in Afghanistan appeared to have been resolved Tuesday, as the United States agreed to put certain assurances in a letter to Afghans that is likely to be signed by President Barack Obama, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
The assurances will include a pledge that U.S. troops will enter Afghan homes only in exceptional circumstances to save lives, and what has become a now-standard U.S. expression of regret for Afghan suffering and the loss of innocent lives in the 12-year-old war.
The proposed letter is to be read to an assembly of more than 2,500 Afghan elders and officials, scheduled to start Thursday in Kabul, that will consider whether to endorse a long-term security agreement with the United States. Mr. Obama's final decision to sign the letter will depend on wording that is still under discussion.
The president "is not adverse to signing," said a senior administration official, one of several who discussed the sensitive talks on condition of anonymity. "One way or the other," the official said, "it's going to be worked out in the next 24 hours."
The agreement was completed in draft form in recent weeks, and U.S. lawmakers have been briefed on its terms. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai raised new concerns about the issue of home entry and the need for what Afghans term a U.S. "apology" for past mistakes during talks over the last few days with James Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., commander of U.S. forces there. Both issues are long-standing Afghan complaints that predate the current negotiations.
U.S. officials said they recognize Mr. Karzai's need for what one called "political cover" on issues likely to be raised in the assembly, called a loya jirga, and for evidence that he had taken a hard negotiating line with the Americans. The officials said the requested assurances were not seen as a significant shift in the deal's substance.
Afghans have long objected to the entry of U.S. troops into their homes, particularly on "night raids," or surprise assaults to find suspected insurgents.
On the "apology" issue, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States "always expresses regret when civilians are killed." He told reporters at his daily news briefing: "It's not a new issue in our relationship. It's one we've discussed openly in the past."
The administration is eager to conclude the agreement before the Afghan electoral campaign, which started this month, gets fully underway and an April vote installs a new president. Planning for a long-term U.S. civilian presence in Afghanistan and agreement by other NATO nations to maintain troops there after 2014 have been held in abeyance pending a U.S. military deal.
U.S. exasperation with the ups and downs of negotiations in the past several months led the administration at several points to threaten a complete withdrawal. What was considered the most substantive hurdle -- whether U.S. troops would have immunity from prosecution by Afghan courts in the event of wrongdoing -- was settled with language saying the United States would have legal jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel and Defense Department civilians.
Similar negotiations with Iraq in 2011 faltered on the immunity issue and led to a complete withdrawal at the end of that year.
The Afghanistan draft accord does not specify the number of troops the United States would leave behind to advise and train Afghan forces, as well as to conduct ongoing counterterrorism operations, after the final combat withdrawal in December 2014. Most estimates have put the number at 5,000 to 10,000, and the agreement has no expiration date.
The fix for the impasse was suggested early Tuesday by Secretary of State John Kerry during a phone call with the Afghan president.