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U.S. apology for errors in Afghanistan rumored

| Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, 7:21 p.m.

KABUL — The Obama administration has offered to write a letter to Afghans acknowledging past mistakes by forces in Afghanistan, a last-ditch effort to salvage negotiations over a long-term security agreement, Afghan officials said on Tuesday.

The purported offer — officials are not confirming they plan to write the letter — occurs because complications arose in recent days in talks over keeping a small contingent of troops in Afghanistan past 2014. Although a draft of the security agreement has been in place for weeks, a final sticking point has emerged over whether American troops will have the authority to enter the homes of Afghan citizens.

Amid the disagreement, more than 2,500 Afghan elders and officials are gathering in Kabul this week to consider whether to endorse a long-term security deal with the United States. Afghan President Hamid Karzai hopes to present the agreement to the gathering, called a loya jirga, on Thursday.

To try to resolve the impasse, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Karzai by phone.

During the call, Karzai insisted that Kerry or another high-ranking official attend the loya jirga to defend the Obama administration's reasoning for wanting to continue to give troops access to the homes of Afghans, Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said. Kerry said he could not attend and instead offered to write a letter to the Afghan people, Faizi said.

“He said, ‘We would like to write a letter to participants that acknowledges Afghans have suffered in the past 12 years during the operations, and we want to make sure this does not happen again,' ” according to Faizi.

Officials acknowledged that the phone call took place but had no comment on the Afghan account of it.

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.”

In recent weeks, the Obama administration's hopes of keeping several thousand troops in Afghanistan in training and support roles have run into resistance in Afghanistan.

Until now, the biggest dispute has centered around whether forces would have immunity from prosecution in Afghanistan if they violate local laws. But the sides have since agreed on language that stipulates that the United States would have exclusive legal jurisdiction over American military personnel and Defense Department civilians working with them.

At the same time, the draft accord makes clear that no one is exempt from prosecution for wrongdoing, officials said.

Most estimates have indicated that the administration plans to keep 5,000 to 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan after the end of combat operations next year. According to the working draft, the commitment would last indefinitely, although it could be revisited at any time by either country.

To move beyond the issue of troops in Afghan homes, Karzai issued a statement late Tuesday saying Kerry has offered to limit such movement to only “exceptional and special cases.”

Karzai offered to put that language to the loya jirga, the statement said, but he wants Kerry to “personally take part in the loya jirga to defend his country's” proposal.

Otherwise, the signing of the agreement would be delayed until after Afghanistan elects a president in April 2014, the statement said.

If such a delay were to occur, the Obama administration has signaled it would likely walk away from the agreement and proceed to a full pullout of all U.S. forces by the end of 2014.

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Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

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