The U.S. military and the Afghan government have sealed an agreement on the gradual transfer of control of the main U.S. prison in the country, a last-minute breakthrough that brings the first progress in months in contentious negotiations over a long-term partnership.
The Friday compromise deal came on the day Afghan President Hamid Karzai had set as a deadline for the Americans to hand over the Parwan prison.
The agreement gives the U.S. six months to transfer Parwan's 3,000 Afghan detenus to Afghan control. However, the U.S. will also be able to block the release of prisoners, easing American fears that insurgents or members of the Taliban could be freed and return to the fight.
The deal removes a sticking point that had threatened to derail talks going on for months that would formalise the U.S.-Afghan partnership and the role of U.S. forces after NATO's scheduled transfer of security responsibility to Kabul at the end of 2014.
On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Mr. Karzai discussed the stalled security pact talks in a video conference. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the two leaders noted progress toward completing an agreement “that reinforces Afghan sovereignty while addressing the practical requirements of transition.”
Another major sticking point in the negotiations remains unresolved — night raids by international troops on the homes of suspected militants. Mr. Karzai has demanded a halt to the raids, which have caused widespread anger among Afghans.
U.S. and Afghan officials have said that they want a strategic partnership agreement signed by the time a NATO summit convenes in Chicago in May.
Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, called Friday's deal a sign of real progress toward the larger partnership accord.
“This is an important step. It is a step forward in our strategic partnership negotiations,” he told reporters here before signing the agreement. alongside Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.