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Afghan leader orders US special forces out of province

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Hamid Karzai has ordered US special forces to leave a strategic province, highlighting his desire to control Afghan militia and underscoring tensions over accountability as NATO prepares to leave the country.

The Afghan president Sunday gave American special forces two weeks to leave Wardak, a hotbed of Taliban activity on the doorstep of Kabul, accusing Afghans they work with of torture and murder that has incited local "hatred".

The US military has said it will discuss the issue with Afghan officials and takes seriously all allegations of misconduct.

Wardak is a deeply troubled flashpoint where a Chinook helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in August 2011, killing eight Afghans and 30 Americans, in the deadliest single incident for American troops in the entire war.

Analysts suggested the order underscored Kabul's growing distrust of US-led international troops and their desire to control local militia, trained by the Americans but which operate without their knowledge in the war against the Taliban.

Relations between Karzai and Washington have long been troubled, and with the bulk of NATO's 100,000 combat soldiers due to leave and the Afghan president to step down next year, there is huge uncertainty about the future.

"It appears to be an on-the-spot, emotional decision, based on a long-standing frustration that there are forces... Afghan and international, that are uncontrollable," said Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

The New York Times quoted Afghan officials as saying the order was taken as a last resort after they had tried and failed to get the coalition to cooperate with an investigation into claims of murder and torture.

The presidency said the decision was taken because armed individuals working with US special forces "engage in harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people".

It cited, for example, a student who was taken away at night from his home and two days later was found dead with torture wounds and his throat cut.

Kabul did not specify which groups were responsible, but the United States is understood to have trained a variety of local militias, a number of which reportedly operate beyond the control of the Afghan government.

On February 16, Karzai also restricted Afghan forces from calling in NATO air strikes -- an important weapon in the fight against insurgents -- amid concern over civilian casualties.

Karzai's orders were issued amid sensitive discussions over the size and role of a residual force that could remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to focus on training and counter-terrorism operations.

Kabul and Washington are still negotiating an agreement on the legal status that could allow an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 American troops to remain.

"It does not appear to be a calculated move as a part of the security agreement negotiations, although it should of course be seen in that context," said Bijlert.

Afghan analyst Omar Sharifi said the order was primarily one for domestic consumption, with Karzai's administration also fully aware of its dependency on the United States for cash and military expertise.

"He's trying to show that he's in control, that he's no one's puppet. Why? Because as he's leaving, he's becoming more irrelevant every day," he said.

"The Afghans can't win this war without international help in terms of resources... Nobody within Karzai's administration has the slightest doubt about that," he added.

A spokesman for Wardak's governor said locals have complained regularly for two and a half months about US special forces and "their illegal Afghan armed forces arresting, torturing and even killing villagers".

"We want our Afghan security forces to take control of this province and replace these US special forces. We want the US special forces to be expelled," the spokesman, Ataullah Khogyani, told AFP.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130225/afghan-leader-orders-us-special-forces-out-province