By Elise Labott
In the delicate dance of diplomacy, the word "apology" can be a misstep.
Such is the case with a proposed letter of assurances from the United States to the people of Afghanistan, which is emerging as a way to overcome remaining hurdles to allowing some U.S. troops to remain in that country post-2014.
Those assurances include a U.S. commitment for its troops to only enter Afghan homes in "exceptional" circumstances and an expression of U.S. regret for Afghan suffering and the loss of innocent lives.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai had said he was unable to finalize the agreement without concrete terms for U.S. raids on Afghan homes and an acknowledgment of past U.S. mistakes in the 12-year old war. The longstanding issues for Afghans have lingered as the remaining points of contention holding up a deal.
The proposed letter - an idea hatched by Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone call Tuesday with Karzai - would be read at a meeting of more than 2,500 Afghan tribal elders and officials, known as a loya jirga, which is scheduled to start Thursday. The assembly was called to debate the security pact between the two countries, which U.S. and Afghan officials say is nearly complete.
But does that mean Washington is offering an "apology" for U.S. actions in Afghanistan? The idea could draw criticism from Republicans in Congress and offend U.S. veterans of the war.
"Quite the contrary," National Security Adviser Susan Rice told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "We have sacrificed and supported them in their democratic progress and in tackling the insurgents and al Qaeda. So that (letter of apology) is not on the table."
But it's really a distinction without a difference.
The U.S. has commonly used language in the past expressing regret for civilian deaths. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Generals John Allen and Stanley McChrystal, both former commanders of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, have all offered some form of an apology to Karzai and the Afghan people when innocent Afghans were killed in U.S. attacks.
U.S. officials say repeating that language could give Karzai the political cover he needs on the tough issues likely to be raised at the loya jirga and show him as a hard-nosed negotiator with Washington. They say the assurances do not tamper with the substance of the security agreement.
The need for the United States to have legal jurisdiction for U.S. military personnel and Defense Department civilians in the event of wrongdoing - which Washington said was necessary for U.S. troops to remain in the country beyond 2014 when most foreign troops are due to leave - was another of the last sticking points in the negotiations, which officials said has been resolved.
Bottom line: Semantics may give both sides what they want.