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 of 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 U.S. 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 operations 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, told The Associated Press in an interview on Saturday.
"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 (handover) 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."
Currently, U.S. special operations teams go into an area, get to know the powerbrokers and tribesmen and then help train Afghan men selected by the locals.
To join the Afghan local police, also called the "ALP," recruits drawn from the local villages must be vouched for by village elders and then vetted by the Interior Ministry, including a background check by Afghan intelligence to rule out prior participation with the Taliban. If approved, they get rudimentary training on weapons safety and basic police skills and military tactics from the U.S. special operations forces partnered with them.
The combined U.S. and Afghan forces are stationed at posts throughout Afghanistan intended to extend security and Afghan government influence to more remote, Taliban strongholds that are beyond the geographic range of the conventional Afghan army and regular uniformed police.
Afghan and coalition officials say the back-country policemen have so eroded militant influence that they've become a top target for the Taliban. The bounty for killing a local policeman is $6,000 compared to $4,000 for a regular, uniformed policeman and $2,000 for an Afghan army soldier, one Afghan official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information.
The units are so popular with local security officials that Thomas has more requests to start new units than his 61 American teams can build. The Afghan interior ministry also has asked the U.S. to consider expanding the local police force by another 45,000 troops. Thomas said he now has to do his own analysis for Dunford, to determine if the coalition can afford to fund them and if Afghanistan needs that many.
Karzai has yet to be convinced. Among other things, Karzai has echoed human rights groups that have complained that some of the Afghan forces have preyed on locals, from shaking them down for cash to more serious charges.
U.S. and Afghan officials say the Afghan interior ministry has stepped up its oversight of the local police units and is responding to such complaints. Five local policemen accused of rape were charged last year and sentenced to lengthy jail terms, and Thomas said nine local police chiefs responsible for some of the units have been removed for being "negative influences."
Thomas points out that more than half of the 21,000-strong local police force — some 12,000 policemen — are now overseen by the Afghan interior ministry with no American special operation forces present.