KABUL—U.S. and Afghan officials on Tuesday said they were getting closer to a deal for U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan, but they differed over whether the U.S. had committed to a letter from President Barack Obama acknowledging mistakes made by the U.S. in the war.
President Hamid Karzai requested that Mr. Obama write the letter in exchange for softening his opposition to letting American forces raid Afghan homes after the coalition's mandate expires in December 2014, said his spokesman, Aimal Faizi. If made, this American gesture would be reciprocated by Kabul's agreement to permit these raids in circumstances when American lives are at risk, he said.
In Washington, White House and State Department officials wouldn't confirm whether Mr. Obama would send such a letter. White House press secretary Jay Carney said he wouldn't comment on a "letter that hasn't been written."
Mr. Faizi said the compromise decision was made in a phone call between Messrs. Karzai and Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday. Mr. Kerry initially offered to write the letter himself, but Mr. Karzai insisted it must come from Mr. Obama, Mr. Faizi said.
The developments came just ahead of Thursday's inauguration of the Loya Jirga, a traditional assembly that would consider the so-called bilateral security agreement between the two countries.
A senior State Department official said Mr. Karzai requested the "reassurances, including the option of a letter from the administration." The official said there was no agreement on a letter yet but that one that states the government's position was under discussion.
U.S. officials said they believe that conflicting accounts of the call reflect last-minute political posturing by Mr. Karzai ahead of the Loya Jirga. In the call with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Kerry didn't specify any intention to issue a letter in which the U.S. would apologize for American conduct in the war, U.S. officials said. But the officials said they could envisage issuing a letter in which the U.S. expresses "regret" for civilian casualties in past military operations, in line with previous U.S. statements.
In the U.S., Republican lawmakers have criticized Mr. Obama for what they see as a willingness to apologize for American military action abroad, and any letter to Mr. Karzai could carry political overtones.
The security agreement, which would provide for a limited American training and counterterrorism force in Afghanistan after 2014, is crucial for continuing international aid, the main source of funding for the Afghan army and police that are facing a resilient Taliban insurgency.
Mr. Obama's letter to Mr. Karzai and the Afghan people is supposed to "mention that there were mistakes made in the conduct of military operations by U.S. forces in the past decade, and that the Afghan people have suffered, and we understand their pain, and therefore can give assurances that these mistakes will not be repeated," said Mr. Faizi. He added that Mr. Obama's letter would be presented to the Loya Jirga together with the security deal.
Susan Rice, Mr. Obama's national security adviser, said Tuesday that the president has no intention of apologizing.
"There's no such discussion of an apology," she said on PBS. "So let's take that off the table. That's not in the cards."
She added that the talks on a security agreement are "very close to completion," but added it was "possible" the two sides won't reach a deal on remaining details.
The U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, losing 2,922 American lives in the war so far. Mr. Karzai has repeatedly condemned the U.S. forces for inflicting civilian casualties.
U.S. officials said in recent weeks that they had believed that the draft text of the agreement was ironed out during marathon talks between Messrs. Karzai and Kerry in Kabul in October. Mr. Karzai, however, reopened some of the most contentious issues in recent days.
The dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Vali Nasr, a former senior State Department official dealing with Afghanistan, said Mr. Karzai was shoring up his nationalistic credentials in this latest confrontation with Washington as U.S. troops withdraw.
"He has to be viable as a nationalist leader," Mr. Nasr said. "He is definitely playing a domestic game.…The Loya Jirga right now puts added pressure on him to appear not to be an American cat's paw."
Mr. Karzai's most-pointed demand to revise the security agreement was his insistence that American troops would no longer be allowed to enter Afghan homes under any circumstances, not even when accompanied by Afghan security forces, after 2014.
Such a blanket ban would severely constrain, if not scuttle altogether, the counterterrorism mission that the U.S. hopes to maintain in Afghanistan to target al Qaeda. It would make it impossible for U.S. personnel to gather intelligence and evidence inside al Qaeda's hide-outs, and would even outlaw rescue missions to recover kidnapped or injured U.S. personnel.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan and now is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said counterterrorism raids are "the area where the United States is going to be particularly sensitive to restrictions," adding, "Forces in combat, under fire, are going to require a little bit of that flexibility."
During Tuesday's phone call with Mr. Karzai, Mr. Kerry suggested that the Americans may be permitted to enter Afghan homes in "exceptional circumstances" when American troops' lives are at risk, Mr. Faizi said.
Mr. Karzai initially replied by saying he wanted to add both the Afghan proposal and the American language in the draft agreement to be submitted to the Loya Jirga, and let its 2,500 delegates decide. He also invited Mr. Kerry to come to Kabul and try persuading the delegates to accept the American version in a speech to the assembly, an offer the U.S. rejected, Mr. Faizi said.
The Loya Jirga, most of whose delegates were selected by provincial authorities, and whose membership list was approved by Mr. Karzai, is highly unlikely to do anything against the wishes of the Afghan president.
As an alternative, Mr. Faizi said, Mr. Karzai also suggested the U.S. could sign the deal with a new government that is slated to be elected in April.
At the end of the phone call, however, the Afghan president agreed to the "exceptional circumstances" request in exchange for a letter from Mr. Obama, Mr. Faizi said. The exact wording of that clause in the security agreement will be determined by negotiators from the two countries before the Loya Jirga considers the document, he said.
Mr. Obama's letter should also guarantee that these exceptions "will not be misused" and "strictly defined," Mr. Faizi said.
It is possible, Mr. Faizi acknowledged, that the Loya Jirga may come up with "new suggestions" to amend the security agreement, requiring a new round of negotiations in coming weeks.
U.S. military commanders initially pressed for the security agreement to be reached by October, saying they needed to start planning for any new post-2014 force as soon as possible. Any further delays would make this planning even more difficult, American officials have said.
—Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this article.