Afghan Troubles

Military, Pentagon grappling with Karzai ban on U.S. special operations in key Afghan province

Hamid Karzai / AP
March 11, 2013

Afghan militiamen trained by United States special operations forces are suspected of carrying out rogue killings and kidnappings in a key Afghan province, prompting the Kabul government to recently order all U.S. commandos out of the zone, according to Pentagon and military officials.

The expulsion was announced by Afghan President Hamid Karzai Feb. 24 but has not been carried out. The removal demand has pitted U.S. and Afghan officials against each other and is raising concerns among senior U.S. military officials that the central Afghan province of Wardak will become a new Taliban stronghold.

The illicit militia activities in Wardak, a largely Pashtun region close to the Afghan capital of Kabul, include kidnappings, torture, and several murders, according to military officials.

Karzai on Feb. 24 ordered a ban on all U.S. special operations forces activities in the region and called for the commandos to be withdrawn in two weeks under pressure from local leaders in the province. The deadline passed on Monday.

The U.S. military is resisting the order, as it would leave untrained and ill-equipped Afghan forces in charge of security for the province.

The special forces ban was discussed during meetings of Afghan and U.S. military leaders during the visit by defense secretary Chuck Hagel last weekend.

"Well, I think, as you know, [U.S. commander in Afghanistan] Gen. [Joseph] Dunford is working on this, and our generals are," Hagel told reporters on Saturday. "And I feel confident that we'll be able to work this out."

After ordering the expulsion last month, Karzai on Saturday further strained ties by accusing the United States of collaborating with Taliban insurgents in destabilizing the country, highlighting growing tensions between his government and the U.S. and allied military presence, now some 66,000 troops.

A joint news conference with Hagel and Karzai in Kabul was cancelled at the last minute on Sunday apparently due to the strained ties.

Dunford told reporters in Kabul on Sunday that he recently discussed with Karzai plans to remove the special operations forces from Wardak. Transition to control of Afghan forces will take place over the next 22 months, Dunford said, with June expected to be a key milestone for handing over security functions.

"And at that point, Afghans will be in control across the country but the coalition will still be providing that enabling support I addressed; we'll still be advising, we'll still be assisting, we'll still be training and doing those kinds of things," he said.

Regarding Wardak, however, Dunford said: "Wardak is going to transition to Afghan National Security Forces. The only issue is the timeline and the methodology and we're still working on that."

Dunford said the Taliban have exploited the issue of foreign forces in the country, which many Afghans oppose, and fears created by the announced U.S. troop pullout by the end of 2014.

An Afghan police officer on Monday in Wardak opened fire during a visit to a police station, killing two U.S. troops and two Afghan policemen in the latest incident of insider violence against U.S. troops, the Associated Press reported. Most U.S. troops in the province are special operations forces.

A U.S. Chinook helicopter carrying Navy SEALs was shot down in Wardak in August 2011, killing 30 Americans and eight Afghans.

Taliban insurgents for the past several years have focused on building up control and influence in Wardak and Logar provinces because they are close to Kabul and thus hope to use the regions to eventually launch attacks on the capital after U.S. forces depart the country by the end of 2014.

The Taliban have stepped up suicide bombing attacks in recent months, including two bombings during the Hagel visit that killed at least nine people in Kabul.

Special operations forces have been training Afghan militias as part of counterinsurgency efforts and it appears that some of the Afghans have launched terrorist-like counterattacks in the area, officials told the Free Beacon.

Taliban sympathizers in Wardak have exploited several incidents of military abuse for anti-U.S. propaganda purposes. Among these incidents are the disappearance of villagers, including one student who was allegedly taken by special forces soldiers and whose remains were found with signs of torture and a slit throat.

NATO spokesmen have said no U.S. or allied commandos were involved in any atrocities or kidnappings. The incidents are being investigated.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by the U.S.-trained local militias who are apparently operating outside the control of the central government’s military and police forces.

A senior U.S. military official confirmed that there are concerns about a Taliban influx into the region but said the Pentagon and International Security Assistance Forces  (ISAF) are hopeful the problem can be worked out.

"The precipitating incident was ‘manufactured’ in the sense no ISAF or U.S. forces were involved directly or indirectly in what may or may not have happened," the official said. "There’s no order or other decision that has been put out at this time so we’ll keep working the issue like so many of these."

"The issue is not yet at the final stage."

Added a senior defense official: "No one should think that our operations are stopped at this stage. We're working this through with our Afghan partners while also working together to continue to make progress in the war effort."

It could not be learned if the incidents in Wardak are the result of what intelligence officials call "blowback" from covert operations to develop a counter-counterinsurgency force in Afghanistan that would work against the Taliban.

The U.S. special operations troops have been covertly supporting the so-called Afghan "uprising" movement—a popular opposition movement that emerged in Afghanistan last summer. The movement appears to be modeled after the successful Anbar Awakening in Iraq that was instrumental in helping defeat al Qaeda and other extremist groups, at least temporarily.

The uprising movement developed as a backlash against Taliban and other Islamist extremists and their supporters.

Military officials are concerned that a forced withdrawal of U.S. special operations forces from Wardak will lead to instability in the province that could threaten the Kabul government over the long term.

Afghan political analyst Jawed Kohestani stated in a recent Afghan television program that Wardak remains a strategic region and that "necessary coordination has not been established" to protect national security in Wardak.

"U.S. special forces have been playing the main role of ensuring security and fighting terrorism [in Wardak]," he said on Feb. 25. "If the U.S. Special Forces are removed from there, I think two threats will be posed: First, it will result in the closure of the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat highway and second, expansion of insecurity to Kabul city."

Other commentators in the province supported Karzai’s special operations ban and complained that Afghans had been harassed, killed, and tortured in unauthorized raids by U.S. forces.

Meanwhile, on Sunday Karzai accused the CIA of backing armed Afghans who seized a university student, who was later freed.

Karzai said he wants to ban all foreign forces from operating on universities as a result, the Associated Press reported from Kabul.

The CIA has trained Afghan counterterrorist forces that are working with Afghan intelligence, the report said.