KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday ordered all U.S. Special Operations forces to leave a strategically important province in two weeks, alleging that they had been involved in the torture and murder of “innocent people.”
Karzai’s blunt statement, which did not provide specific evidence or cite judicial determinations, also demanded an immediate halt to Special Operations activity in the province, Wardak, which lies southwest of Kabul and has been contested by Taliban fighters and other insurgents.
The announcement appeared to come as a surprise to American military officials, and it remained unclear whether Karzai would follow through on the order or would perhaps, as with past edicts aimed at restricting U.S.-led operations, reach a negotiated agreement with NATO forces.
Still, the order came at a sensitive time, with the withdrawal of conventional forces from Wardak and elsewhere in Afghanistan making the role played by Special Operations forces more critical. It also threatened to cast a pall over deliberations between the United States and its allies over the scope and price tag of the West’s commitment to Afghanistan after NATO’s mandate for operations in the country expires at the end of 2014.
Last week, Karzai banned his forces from calling in NATO airstrikes in populated areas, citing civilian casualties. But Sunday’s statement was Karzai’s most acerbic in recent months against the international community, following a period during which the Afghan president has been largely conciliatory with the foreign nations that pay the biggest portion of his government’s bills.
“After a thorough discussion, it became clear that armed individuals named as U.S. special force[s] stationed in Wardak province engage in harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people,” the statement said.
“A recent example in the province is an incident in which nine people were disappeared in an operation by this suspicious force,” the statement said. In a separate incident, “a student was taken away at night from his home,” it said, and his “tortured body with throat cut was found two days later under a bridge.”
The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said in a statement that it takes abuse allegations seriously, adding: “This is an important issue that we must discuss with our Afghan counterparts.”
The controversy over the role of U.S. Special Operations forces in Wardak and other provinces has been brewing for some time. After President Obama announced this year that U.S. forces would pull back from Afghan villages, senior Afghan officials said they were under the impression that the troops pulling out would include the U.S. Special Operations forces units that have built and trained the small village militias that form the Afghan Local Police.
U.S. officials pushed back on that interpretation, arguing that it would be unwise to abort the training mission.
Karzai has long viewed the Afghan Local Police with suspicion because of fears that they operate largely outside the country’s formal defense command structure. Afghan villagers and human rights activists, meanwhile, have long accused the force of rape and other abuses.
The 18,500-strong force provides security in 94 districts. U.S. commanders see the ALP model as an essential pillar of their drawdown strategy.
The local groups are expected to keep areas secure in regions where the U.S. military is thinning out and the Afghan government has limited or no presence.
At a news conference Sunday, Karzai spokesman Amal Faizi sought to clarify the president’s statement, saying the abuse allegations were connected to Afghans working “within these special forces groups.”
“Those Afghans in these armed groups who are working with the U.S. Special Forces, the defense minister asked for an explanation of who they are,” Faizi said. “Those individuals should be handed over to the Afghan side so that we can further investigate.”
It was not immediately clear which Afghan units were involved in the alleged incidents.
The gradual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops and mild winter weather have allowed insurgents to be more active in various parts of Afghanistan than in past years.
On Sunday, Taliban suicide bombers targeted Afghan security forces in three separate attacks.
One of the attacks targeted a building used by the country’s main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, in the eastern city of Jalalabad, Afghan officials said. Two intelligence agency guards died when a bomber exploded a vehicle near the building, they said.
Hours later, a second bomber tried to storm a police post in Logar province, south of Kabul. Police fatally shot the bomber, but he was able to detonate his explosives, killing one officer.
In an evidently coordinated attack in Logar, a suicide attacker set off his bomb near a group of police officers, killing one and a civilian, authorities said.
The Taliban asserted responsibility for the attacks in Jalalabad and Logar province.
In Kabul, security forces killed a man inside a sport-utility vehicle. They suspected the man was planning to stage an attack in front of a branch of the intelligence directorate in an area where several Western embassies are based.
Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.