Afghanistan, NATO agree on troops leaving key province
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan and NATO-led forces have reached a deal on foreign troops leaving a key strategic district near Kabul, coalition forces said, but a controversial expulsion order against U.S. special forces from the entire province remained unclear.
An Afghan defense ministry spokesman told reporters in Kabul that the elite American force would quit the whole province of Wardak within a few days, despite U.S. concerns that their departure would leave a security vacuum.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), however, said that Afghan forces would only take over from foreign troops in the small restive district of Nerkh, and that "the remainder of the province will transition in time".
Afghan officials have expressed fears that insurgents might use Wardak, just a 40-minute drive from Kabul, as a launch pad for attacks on the capital.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai expelled the elite American force from Wardak and Logar provinces last month, after villagers accused them of torturing and killing civilians, an allegation the U.S. special forces denied.
Despite the deadline for their departure expiring over a week ago, U.S. special forces tasked with fighting the Taliban are still operating there, U.S. and Afghan officials say.
Their continued deployment has angered Karzai, who has become increasingly critical of his Western allies operating in the country ahead of the departure of most foreign combat troops by the end of next year.
Karzai and NATO commander Joseph Dunford reached an agreement on Wardak on Wednesday, the two sides said, although the extent of the foreign troop withdrawal and the timeframe was vague.
ISAF said in a statement that under the agreement, Afghan forces would soon take over security from foreign forces in Nerkh, a known hiding place for Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami militants. The district comprises about 10 percent of Wardak, and borders Kabul and Logar provinces.
The statement made no mention of U.S. special forces.
"I am pleased to announce that following a very constructive series of talks with the president ... we have come to agreement on a plan for Wardak that continues the transition of this critical province and meets the security needs of the people and the requirements of our mission," Dunford said.
"This solution is what success looks like as we continue the transition to overall Afghan security lead."
ISAF said the Afghan government would determine the timeline for the takeover.
The Wardak issue, along a series of inflammatory remarks by Karzai deriding the United States and other foreign forces, has strained already fraught ties between the president and Western allies.
Opposition politicians say Karzai's order to expel the U.S. special forces was a political move intended to bolster his party's support base ahead of a presidential election next year. Karzai is not allowed to stand again.
Some in Wardak however are furious U.S. special forces are still operating in the province, and about 1,000 residents converged on the capital on Saturday demanding they leave.
U.S. special forces are expected to play a major role in Afghanistan after most NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of next year, and Karzai's decision to expel them was seen as complicating talks between the United States and Afghanistan over the scope of U.S. operations after the pull-out.