KABUL — U.S. Special Forces withdrew from their base in a volatile region near the Afghan capital on Saturday, U.S. officials said, in line with a demand by President Hamid Karzai and after a warning by senior religious scholars.
The handover of the base in Wardak province’s Nerkh district to Afghan commandos and army troops removes another source of recent heightened tension between Washington and Kabul.
It came a week after the United States officially — and belatedly — ceded control of its main military prison to Afghanistan following Karzai’s repeated demands. U.S. and Afghan officials had originally agreed to the prison handover last September.
Wardak residents and officials had accused U.S. commandos and their Afghan allies of operating outside the national government’s authority and of torturing, kidnapping and summarily executing Nerkh locals suspected of militancy.
U.S. officials, including the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., have rejected those allegations and had ignored an original deadline set by Karzai for pulling the elite forces from the province. But in the face of mounting public anger and Karzai’s sharp comments, they later agreed to a gradual handover of security responsibility for Wardak to Afghans.
The strategically important and insurgent-plagued province lies some 18 miles to the west of Kabul.
“As we pledged, our forces have transitioned Nerkh District to Afghan National Security Forces and they have now assumed full responsibility for security in this key district,” Dunford said in a statement.
“The rest of Wardak will continue to transition over time as Afghan forces continue to grow in capability and capacity,” the statement said.
Two weeks ago, the government-funded Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s top religious body, warned that the American “infidels” would be treated as invaders if they failed to heed Karzai’s demands.
The pullout of the U.S. commandos coincides with the start of spring, traditionally the beginning of the fighting season in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said that despite the U.S. elite forces’ departure from Nerkh, the national forces stationed there will rely on U.S. air support when needed.
“We will make the request for air power from them for bombing non-residential areas where the insurgents show up,” the ministry’s chief spokesman, Zaher Azimi, said.