| ||U.S. Set to Pull Forces From Afghan District|
The Wall Street Journal
By Yaroslav Trofimov
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Coalition Accepts Demand by Karzai to Withdraw Special-Operations Troops From Area Near Capital, After Abuse Claims
KABUL - The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said it would begin pulling special-operations forces from a province abutting the capital, satisfying one of President Hamid Karzai's demands and removing a major irritant in relations with Kabul.
The compromise over Wardak province followed a series of bitter public recriminations by Mr. Karzai, who accused America of a lack of respect for Afghan sovereignty and colluding with the Taliban in a bid to prolong foreign domination.
Mr. Karzai didn't get everything he wanted in Wardak, and other stumbling blocks remain as the U.S. and Afghanistan negotiate over what American military presence, if any, will remain after the coalition's mandate ends in late 2014.
The U.S. this month infuriated Mr. Karzai by calling off a ceremony to transfer the main American-run detention facility, at Bagram Air Field, to Afghan control. Talks are still continuing over Bagram and the fate of some 30 detainees whom the U.S. considers particularly dangerous, officials said.
The U.S. earlier ignored Mr. Karzai's March 11 deadline to remove U.S. special-operations forces from Wardak, and rejected Afghan accusations that American troops had been involved in extrajudicial killings and abuses there. U.S. military officials have long argued that the Special Forces must remain in Wardak to protect Kabul from Taliban infiltration.
But, as in previous confrontations over Afghan objections to night raids and the employment of private security contractors, Mr. Karzai's vociferous comments eventually prompted the U.S. to yield.
After several recent meetings with Mr. Karzai, coalition commander U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford agreed on Wednesday to begin to withdraw special-operations forces from the district of Nerkh, the rural area of Wardak nearest to Kabul.
It was in Nerkh that many locals alleged torture and killings by the U.S. special-operations forces and their Afghan auxiliaries in recent months, prompting Mr. Karzai to demand the pullout.
The coalition's deputy commander, British Lt.-Gen. Nick Carter, said Nerkh would be "transitioned to an Afghan solution during the course of the next few days," subject to details to be determined at a meeting of Afghanistan's national security council on Sunday. He indicated that other districts would follow.
Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman Dawlat Waziri said the handover wouldn't compromise Afghan security. "Our security forces are fully capable of providing internal security to Afghans throughout the country," he said.
Gen. Dunford and U.S. defense officials in Washington cast the decision as part of the coalition's measured transition to Afghan security control. Conventional U.S. forces in Afghanistan are moving to an advisory role, and rarely launch operations these days, focusing largely on closing bases ahead of the withdrawal next year.
The agreement Wednesday "continues the transition of this critical province and meets the security needs of the people and the requirements of our mission," Gen. Dunford said. Under the deal, regular Afghan forces will soon deploy into Nerkh, and the remainder of Wardak "will transition over time," the coalition said.
The agreement immediately applies to just one of Wardak's eight districts, said another senior military official. "It's not a setback at all," he said. "We didn't pull out of Wardak. We're planning to transition one district in Wardak to capable Afghans."
That district, Nerkh, is less than an hour's drive from the Afghan capital, and one from which insurgents have launched high-profile attacks in the past. Mr. Karzai demanded the pullout after several Afghan villagers in Wardak complained of numerous abuses by men they described as U.S. Special Forces and their Afghan allies.
Mr. Karzai's chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khurram, said it was unclear who was responsible for the alleged abuses. "I don't know if it is actually CIA, Special Forces, Army or someone else," he said. "If you Americans and people who are linked to you don't do this, then who does? It is better if you pull out so that we finally know who is really behind this."
One of the Afghan villagers who alleged American atrocities in Wardak is Asadullah Aslamuddin, a 60-year-old from the village of Joy Asiah in the Nerkh district. He said his son Shafiqullah was detained on Jan. 19 in a night raid on the village by U.S. Special Forces assisted by Afghan irregulars. Hours later, he said, his son was found dead nearby, with three bullets in his head and chest.
The Afghan auxiliaries, Mr. Aslamuddin said, hail from nearby villagers and use the Americans to settle old rivalries between local clans by falsely accusing villagers of Taliban links. "When they come, they cover their faces, and don't talk in our presence," Mr. Aslamuddin said. "But whoever they point at, the Americans kill." He said he believed Americans killed his son.
It wasn't possible to independently verify Mr. Aslamuddin's account. The U.S.-led military said its investigation didn't corroborate any such allegations.
In Nerkh and other parts of Wardak, the future of the Afghan Local Police—village self-defense units trained by the U.S. special operations forces—remains unclear. The coalition statement on Wednesday said the arrival of regular Afghan security forces "will preclude the need for ALP and coalition forces in this area."
But Brig. Gen. Ali Shah Ahmadzai, who oversees the ALP program at the Afghan Ministry of Interior, said the ALP in Wardak wouldn't be affected by Wednesday's decision.
"Only the Special Forces will withdraw," Gen. Ahmadzai said. "The ALP won't be pulled out or disbanded—they are local people, and they will stay where they are."
There are currently 756 ALP members in Wardak, and a budget for nearly double that number, according to Gen. Ahmadzai. Of those members, 65 have been deployed in Nerkh, with 135 more slots to be filled.
Mr. Karzai opposed the ALP program when it was launched in 2010, fearing that these village militias would spin out of government control. U.S. commanders have long seen the program as a bulwark against the Taliban, saying that local village forces are far better equipped to weed out insurgents than are military units unfamiliar with the area. —Julian E. Barnes, Nathan Hodge, Adam Entous, Dion Nissenbaum and Habib Khan Totakhil contributed to this article.
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com