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Karzai Order Raises Concerns About Kabul's Future Security

U.S. soldiers on patrol in the strategic Wardak Province. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's order for all U.S. Special Forces to leave the area has taken NATO military planners by surprise. (file photo)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's order for all U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak Province within two weeks has taken NATO military planners by surprise.

The move comes as Karzai is negotiating a new Status of Forces Agreement with the United States -- a treaty that will determine how many foreign troops remain in Afghanistan to support Afghan government forces after the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.

It raises questions about how many, if any, elite U.S. commandos would stay in Afghanistan as trainers beyond 2014.

The edict also could present fresh security concerns for residents of Kabul.

The mountainous Wardak Province is the strategic western gateway to Kabul. It borders the provinces of Ghazni to the south and Loghar to the east -- both of which are adjacent to the volatile border provinces of Paktika and Paktia.

That means Taliban control over Wardak Province would make it easier for Pakistan-based militants to infiltrate Kabul from the west after crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan's tribal areas.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Afghan Army Chief of Staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi suggested on February 24 that Karzai's order could be aimed at tempering anger within some of Wardak's ethnic and tribal factions to prevent a backlash against the Afghan government. According to Karimi, Karzai expelled the elite U.S. commandos after hearing numerous allegations from Wardak residents about human rights abuses by the Afghan troops who work together with the U.S. commando teams in Wardak.

"The main complaint was about [Afghan] Special Forces' operations in the area -- intimidating people, torturing people, even killing people," Karimi said. "The claim was that nine people have disappeared. Nobody knows where they are and they claim that they were taken by Special Forces."

Fears Of Factional Warfare

Karzai's order could also affect a U.S.-backed plan that began in late 2008 to form local Afghan forces to fight Taliban insurgents in Wardak and Loghar provinces.

Under that program, the United States was meant to give training, clothing, and other supplies to anti-Taliban villagers.

Those anti-Taliban fighters deny receiving any support from the Afghan government or from foreign military forces.

Washington has stressed that it is not providing the local village forces with weapons and was not recreating any kind of militia.

But there have been widespread fears in Wardak about the Afghan fighters, with many residents saying their activities could rekindle the kind of factional warfare seen there during the 1990s.

In London on February 25, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that Karzai’s complaints about Wardak Province will be "appropriately evaluated" by the NATO-led International Security Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) -- and that he personally had taken "appropriate note of it."

"I think he's had many legitimate evaluations of how, sometimes, some things have gone wrong or might be changed and done better," Kerry said. "We're working on that. We're working on a bilateral security arrangement. We're working on this transition process."

ISAF: 'No Evidence' Of Misconduct

On the same day, in Kabul, ISAF spokesman Guenter Katz maintained that NATO has not found any evidence so far to support allegations of misconduct by U.S. Special Forces in Wardak Province.

"We take all allegations of misconduct seriously and go to great lengths to determine the facts surrounding them," he said. "Over the past few weeks there have been various allegations of special forces conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner in Maidan Wardak. So far we could not find evidence that would support these allegations."

However, RFE/RL has documented how U.S. Special Forces and Afghan troops raided an Afghan government health clinic in Wardak in October 2012.

That raid began as an operation typical of U.S. commando missions in Afghanistan. About 20 U.S. Special Forces troops in helicopters landed near the medical compound in the village of Sebak, in Wardak's Chak district, during the night. They then linked up with their Afghan support -- about 100 Afghan National Army soldiers -- on the ground.

But after storming the health clinic, the Afghan troops held medical staff and civilians there for three days while the compound was used as a strategic combat position and a military-logistics hub.

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which helps support the clinic in the village of Sebak in Wardak's Chak district, protested in December to ISAF about the raid. It says ISAF officials acknowledged to them privately that the operation violated international law.

Andreas Stefansson, country director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, told RFE/RL that the Afghan troops used a building in the compound as a makeshift prison -- interrogating as many as several hundred civilians there.

Since then, Wardak's residents have raised numerous other complaints about abusive behavior by the Afghan soldiers who work alongside U.S. troops during commando raids.