KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Afghan special forces took control of part of a troubled province bordering Kabul from U.S. troops on Saturday, ending a weeks-long dispute over abuse allegations that prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to order all American forces out of the area.
The handover highlighted the Karzai government’s struggle to assert its authority over security matters on an accelerated timetable ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of most coalition forces by December 2014.
The transfer of control in Nirkh district of Wardak province — a gateway and staging area for militant attacks on the capital — ends a rocky episode in the strained relationship between the United States and Karzai. The Afghan president had angrily insisted that U.S. forces leave Nirkh over the alleged torture, kidnapping and summary execution of militant suspects there — charges U.S. officials firmly denied.
“As we pledged, our forces have transitioned Nirkh district to Afghan national security forces and they have now assumed full responsibility for security,” U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement. He said the rest of Wardak would transition “over time.”
Karzai has had longstanding unease with U.S. special forces, which he blames for causing civilian casualties, and the 21,000 members of the Afghan local police who work with them. He has complained bitterly and publicly that the local police are “militias” and believes they are “outside his control,” according to his spokesman Aimal Faizi.
U.S. special operations forces will continue to visit the Afghan team in Nirkh, and work throughout the rest of the province, said Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, the top U.S. special operations commander in Afghanistan.
“American special operations forces are integral in the defense of Wardak from now until the foreseeable future,” Thomas said in the interview at Camp Integrity, the special operations compound on the outskirts of Kabul.
The Afghan president had originally demanded the U.S. special operations forces pull out of the entire province, but he scaled down his sweeping demand to just Nirkh district after negotiations with Dunford and other U.S. officials.
U.S. officials feared Karzai was close to banning U.S. special operations teams altogether when he declared earlier this year, while standing next to President Barack Obama in Washington, that all American forces would be out of Afghan villages by spring.
Karzai was eventually convinced to accept a more gradual transition for the country overall, just as he was with Wardak, with U.S. special operations forces leaving the villages sometime this summer.
“The last teams will go in this summer and from that point out, when we culminate [hand over] an area, we’ll bring the teams out,” Thomas said.
“More importantly, we’re setting up … training centers that are run by Afghans,” Thomas said. “We’re working ourselves out of a job.”