Kabul, US 'reach deal' on forces pullout

The United States and Kabul appeared Wednesday to reach an agreement on the pullout of coalition forces from a strategic province, nearly a month after an ultimatum from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai on February 24 ordered American special forces to leave Wardak, a hotbed of Taliban activity on the doorstep of Kabul, within two weeks.

It accused Afghans they work with of torture and murder that has incited local hatred.

In recent weeks Karzai has been staking out increasingly nationalist ground, deepening a war of words that threatens to derail NATO attempts to ensure a smooth security transition before most Western troops leave next year.

But the agreement, which left many questions unanswered and made no explicit mention of special forces, will be seen as a compromise for Karzai and as a further sign of his government's reliance on the US-led coalition.

Only hours earlier, Karzai's office branded NATO military operations "aimless and unwise". But he had already backtracked on his two-week deadline, giving US commanders more time to negotiate the security handover in Wardak.

"I am pleased to announce that following a very constructive series of talks... we have come to agreement on a plan for Wardak," said General Joseph Dunford, the US commander of NATO troops, following talks with Karzai.

The US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said Afghan forces would "soon" move into the district of Nerkh, which "will preclude" the need for coalition forces and Afghan Local Police, a controversial, US-trained unit, to remain in the area.

But Nerkh is only one of eight districts in Wardak. ISAF said the "remainder of the province will transition over time" but no dates were announced and Afghan officials contacted by AFP were tight-lipped on the details.

The ISAF statement did not make any specific mention of US special forces, although Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the defence ministry, told AFP that they would leave Nerkh "within a few days".

The US military said it found no evidence to back the allegations that Afghan militia working with US forces had tortured and murdered civilians.

Dunford thanked Karzai for his leadership.

"This plan meets the president's intent and leverages the growing capacity and capability of the Afghan security forces to meet the security needs of this country," he said.

A deputy spokesman for Karzai welcomed the agreement.

"This has been the true demand of Afghan people and president. We welcome the agreement and we expect that it will be finalised as agreed," said Adela Raz.

Relations between Karzai and Washington have been increasingly troubled, with the bulk of NATO's 100,000 combat soldiers due to leave by the end of next year.

The United States, which provides 66,000 of the total, was stunned by the accusations this month from Karzai, who accused the US of colluding with the Taliban to justify its presence in the country.

Many analysts say Karzai, who rose to power with US support after the fall of the Taliban regime, is desperate to shake off allegations that he is a "puppet" president controlled by foreigners.

But some said Wednesday's deal exposed the contradiction between Karzai's anti-American comments in public and his dependence on his Western allies.

"I believe this agreement is a face-saver for the president, but it could also be a sign that he has now realised he cannot go on safe and sound with his tough stance against the Americans," said author Ahmad Saeedi.

"For now this is a win-win for both sides," said Waheed Mujhda, a political commentator who served in the Taliban government of 1996-2001.

"But the truth is American forces have only agreed to quit one district and it is still a long way until the Americans leave the whole province," he said.

Others have raised concerns about a swift coalition exit from Wardak, which if not secured could expose Kabul to greater risk of Taliban infiltration.

Casualty statistics have risen sharply among Afghan security forces as they have taken on a greater role under the phased NATO withdrawal.