KABUL — Afghan officials said Monday they demanded the pullout of U.S. Special Operations forces from an insurgency-wracked province because the U.S.-backed NATO command here for months has ignored residents’ allegations of severe abuses committed by the elite American troops and armed Afghan irregulars working with them.
But NATO said its past inquiries found no evidence to support allegations of misconduct by U.S. Special Operations forces in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul.
A joint commission of inquiry composed of Afghan and NATO coalition officials will explore in coming days the claims raised over the weekend by President Hamid Karzai’s administration — including allegations of the arrest, torture and extrajudicial killing of civilians.
Residents in the province have complained to human rights groups and provincial leaders of being terrorized in recent months by an Afghan militia that works with U.S. commandos and calls itself “special forces” or “campaign forces.”
Karzai on Sunday stunned the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition of foreign forces is known, by ordering all U.S. Special Operations forces to leave Wardak in two weeks, based on allegations that they had been involved in the torture and murder of “innocent people.”
It was one of the the Afghan president’s more strident attacks on his Western allies as U.S. and other foreign troops exit the country they have supported for more than a decade. Karzai has long complained about violations of Afghan sovereignty by international troops, although some U.S. observers say his rhetoric is deliberately overheated to play to a domestic audience.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, asked a news conference Monday in London about Karzai’s demand, said any concerns the Afghan government has will be “appropriately evaluated” by the international coalition.
Because Special Operations troops carry out classified missions, it is difficult to independently confirm their activities or links to local groups.
“The U.S. has had a long history in Afghanistan of working with some of these irregular militias that are not accountable to anyone,” said Sahr Muhammedally, legal adviser for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, who has studied such groups.
“A lot of villagers talk about these campaign forces,” she said. “It is not the first time I have heard the name.... But the U.S. Special Operations forces don’t confirm or deny anything.”
Several angry residents in Maidan Shahr, the small provincial capital 30 miles south of Kabul, told a Washington Post reporter in early December about a truck driver they said had just been beaten to death by an Afghan campaign militia working for the Americans. The residents said they feared the forces because of alleged abuses that its members committed during raids and at checkpoints.
“The situation is so bad that even farmers cannot go to their fields,” a Kabul resident named Zalmai said Monday.
He said that as a union representative for bus and taxi drivers in Wardak, he speaks regularly with drivers and passengers from the province. “The tyranny is very widespread,” Zalmai said.
Kerry, a former U.S. senator who served for years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted his own long involvement with Afghanistan and with Karzai, who he said has had “many legitimate evaluations of how sometimes some things have gone wrong or ought to be changed and done better.”
“I can assure you we are finely attuned to the needs of the Afghan people,” Kerry said.
The Afghan president’s action grew out of a report that Wardak’s provincial governor, Abdul Majid Khogyani, presented to the Afghan National Security Council on Sunday. Karzai had previously sent five delegations to investigate the allegations of misconduct, Khogyani said in an interview Monday.
For the past three months, Khogyani said, he has received complaints “in droves” from tribal elders, religious leaders and other residents about the behavior of U.S. Special Operations troops, including allegations that nine people had been arrested and have since disappeared.
“When I spoke with various U.S. forces in the province, they did not tell us anything about the fate of the nine — whether they are alive, in prison or dead,” Khogyani said. “People want to know what has happened to them.”
The alleged disappearance of the nine people was also referenced in a statement issued Sunday on the presidential palace’s Web site.
“We take all allegations of misconduct seriously and go to great lengths to determine the facts surrounding them,” German Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz, a spokesman for the coalition forces, said Monday at a news conference.
“Over the past few weeks, there have been various allegations of special forces conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner” in the province, Katz said. But, he added, “so far, we could not find evidence that would support these allegations.”
In the interview, Khogyani also said 60 tribal leaders were recently rounded up by U.S. special forces — backed by Afghan troops claiming to belong to “Afghan special forces” — then taken to a base and beaten.
In earlier interviews, palace officials said they submitted a report to Karzai on Jan. 7 about one round of investigation of the alleged misconduct. The inquiry found that up to eight Afghan translators for American troops were operating in the northern Nerkh district of Wardak, wearing the uniforms of Afghan commandos in the national army. People had complained about abusive treatment by the group, the report said.
The Afghan defense minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, said at the time that the ministry demanded that NATO hand over the men. But coalition officials reportedly said they were not working with the alliance and had disappeared.
A U.S. official said Monday it was not clear whether the latest allegations were the ones dismissed earlier.
“We need to fully understand what allegations they are talking about. We don’t know if they are new, and that is part of the discussion we will have with the Afghan government,” said the official, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter. “This requires diligent investigation.”
Anne Gearan in London and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.