KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday ordered U.S. special forces troops to cease operations in a strategic eastern province, accusing the Americans and Afghans working for them of torturing and abducting civilians.
Karzai's office charged that a university student who was detained during a U.S. operation in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul, was later found with his head and fingers cut off. In another case, U.S. forces are accused of detaining nine villagers, who are still missing.
Karzai gave no additional details and didn't specify the identities of the Afghans working alongside the U.S. forces. The Wardak provincial chief of police told The Times that he had recently assigned officers to investigate the claims but had seen nothing that supported them. "I don't have any evidence in hand in regard to this issue," said the chief, Sardar Mohammad Zazai.
The lack of specifics added to the confusion surrounding the accusations, which blindsided U.S. officials in Kabul, the Afghan capital. State Department and military officials were not briefed about the decision before Karzai's chief spokesman announced it at a news conference Sunday evening.
"We take all allegations of misconduct seriously and go to great lengths to determine the facts surrounding them," the U.S. military in Kabul said in a statement. "This is an important issue that we intend to discuss fully with our Afghan counterparts."
It was the latest example of strained relations between the United States and Karzai's government, and the latest dispute to damage U.S. efforts to achieve a smooth withdrawal of most of the remaining 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan by the end of next year. The Obama administration has long viewed Karzai as an undesirable partner, and has complained repeatedly about widespread allegations of corruption involving those close to the Afghan leader.
A long, candid meeting between President Obama and Karzai at the White House in January seemed to put the relationship on fresh footing, but it has stumbled again in recent weeks as Karzai has renewed complaints about the way the U.S.-led coalition is prosecuting the war.
Two weeks ago, a U.S.-led coalition airstrike reportedly killed 10 Afghan civilians in addition to four Taliban commanders, prompting Karzai to ban Afghan forces from requesting coalition airstrikes in residential areas.
The counterinsurgency efforts of U.S. special forces have been a frequent target of scorn from Karzai, who says they provoke instability. U.S. special forces, along with Afghan soldiers and allied militias, routinely carry out nighttime raids on suspected insurgent hide-outs, often in towns and villages.
Karzai's directive could be a blow to U.S. efforts to bring most American soldiers home while leaving a smaller force in Afghanistan after 2014. It would focus on mentoring Afghans in the field and continuing counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda. Both missions would lean heavily on special forces troops.
In meetings last week, North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers discussed plans for a post-2014 force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops — mostly Americans, a large proportion of whom would probably be special forces.
About 4,500 U.S. special forces personnel are involved in training the Afghan Local Police, a rural paramilitary force that Pentagon officials say will serve as Afghanistan's main line of defense against the Taliban in areas outside the reach of regular Afghan army and police units.
Members of the Afghan Local Police have been implicated in human rights abuses and criminal activity, but that force isn't the one being accused of violations in Wardak. Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, described the Afghans only as "some armed groups that are established and controlled by the foreign troops in Afghanistan."
Wardak, a turbulent province considered a key gateway to Kabul, has become a hotbed of insurgent activity in recent years and is a key focus of U.S. security efforts. It has been among the most heavily contested provinces in Afghanistan, with both the Taliban and another insurgent group, the Haqqani network, using it as a base from which to stage attacks on coalition forces.
In 2011, the Taliban shot down a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter over the province, killing 38 U.S. and Afghan troops, including 17 Navy SEALs. Weeks later, a suicide blast outside a U.S. outpost killed several Afghans and injured dozens of other people, including 77 American soldiers.
After a meeting of his national security council earlier Sunday at which Wardak's governor raised the allegations, Karzai ordered an immediate halt to U.S. special forces operations in the province and said the soldiers would be expelled within two weeks. Because of the secrecy surrounding their operations, it wasn't immediately clear if special forces are based in Wardak or they travel into the province for missions.
"There are some groups of American special forces — and Afghans considered to be part of the American special forces — who are conducting raids, searching houses, harassing and torturing people, and even murdering our innocent people," Faizi said.
Also Sunday, Afghan security forces foiled an apparent suicide bomber in central Kabul, but attackers struck police and intelligence offices in two other eastern cities, killing three people, officials said.
Officers with the National Directorate of Security shot and killed a man who was driving a sport utility vehicle packed with explosives near the intelligence agency's headquarters in Kabul. No one else was hurt, officials said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for two earlier attacks on security targets: a car bombing at an NDS compound in Jalalabad that killed two guards and a bombing at a police compound in Lowgar province, which left a police officer dead.
Baktash is a special correspondent.