KABUL - The United States and Afghanistan signed a deal Sunday giving Afghans authority over military raids on Afghan homes, resolving a major source of friction between President Hamid Karzai and Washington.
The agreement removes a key obstacle to a long-term strategic partnership between the two countries, including a United States military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when all foreign combat troops are set to leave the country.
Most of the raids are nighttime operations in which US and Afghan forces descend on houses or residential compounds in search of insurgents.
Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since US-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, has repeatedly called for an end to the raids, calling them a clear violation of Afghan sovereignty. But US military officials have hailed the effectiveness of night operations, during which many suspected insurgents - and their commanders - have been arrested.
Under the deal, a newly formed national force - the Afghan Special Operations Unit - will have the authority to search houses and private compounds and arrest suspected insurgents, Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said Sunday.
US forces will provide support “only as required or requested,’’ according to the agreement, which was signed by Wardak and General John Allen, the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan.
“This is . . . a landmark day for the rule of law in Afghanistan,’’ Allen said during the signing ceremony. “This means that Afghan security forces operating under Afghan law will now be responsible for capturing and detaining the terrorists who try to kill and wound the innocent people of Afghanistan.’’
Many Afghans in the south and east of the country, the main bastions of the insurgents and the focus of the night operations by US and NATO forces, have repeatedly complained about the raids, charging that they violate their privacy, create panic among the population, and result in civilian casualties.
The targeted operations are expected to remain a key part of military strategy through 2014 - a viable way of crippling terrorist networks, officials said, even as NATO troops continue leaving the country by the thousands. The operations will still be based on United States intelligence, and, for now, Afghan forces will continue to depend on US airstrikes during the raids, according to the agreement.
About 3,000 night operations have been conducted during the past 14 months, with suspects apprehended 81 percent of the time, US officials said last week.
Afghan officials called the agreement a significant breakthrough in relations between the two countries. The other major hurdle to a long-term strategic partnership was removed last month when US and Afghan officials signed an agreement to hand over the largest US military prison in the country.
Shaida Mohammad Abadali, deputy head of Afghanistan’s national security council, said by e-mail that the deal addresses “our yearslong demand for full respect to Afghan sovereignty.’’
A summit in Chicago next month between the two countries is expected to address lingering questions about the cost and size of the Afghan army and a timetable for the US military to shift away from a predominantly combat role.
Under the deal announced Sunday, US forces will still play a large part in operations, including entering Afghan homes if needed. But formation of the Special Operations Unit means that Afghanistan will be held equally accountable if there are civilian casualties or allegations of mistreatment.
US officials say the raids that Karzai frequently condemns are already a rarity. More than 97 percent of night operations are combined operations involving Afghan forces, and almost 40 percent of night operations are now Afghan-led.
However, it is unclear whether Afghan forces have so far had much authority even in operations that are nominally “Afghan-led.’’ Sometimes this designation means only that an Afghan soldier is first through the door, or that officials have rubber stamped a mission just as it starts.
According to the document, all “special operations’’ will have to be reviewed and approved by a panel pulled from the Afghan military, government, and intelligence services. The definition of a “special operation’’ is left vague, but appears to apply to night raids as well as other operations that involve going into Afghan homes. Any disagreements will be resolved by a joint US-Afghan committee.Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.