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US, Afghans Investigate Atrocities Claims

Villagers stand in front of the graves of people killed during an explosion in Sayedabad, Wardak southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 13, 2013.
Villagers stand in front of the graves of people killed during an explosion in Sayedabad, Wardak southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 13, 2013.
Luis Ramirez
U.S. military officials said they have set up a joint U.S.-Afghan commission to look into Afghanistan’s complaints that Afghan forces supported by U.S. troops have been torturing and murdering innocent civilians.  

The joint commission will look into the complaints, which on Sunday prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to order all U.S. special operations forces out of Wardak, a strategically important province near Kabul.

Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters Monday U.S. officials will try to find out what prompted the government of President Karzai to make the decision, which military officials said they were not expecting.

“We’re working with the government of Afghanistan to define precisely what their concerns were. Obviously, we take all of their concerns very seriously,” he said.

Mr. Karzai’s decision comes shortly after his government banned NATO air strikes in populated areas - a move analysts say demonstrates the Afghan government’s growing anxiety about civilian casualties as most U.S. and foreign troops prepare to exit the country at the end of next year.

Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution research organization in Washington, said there is a problem of confidence.

“It’s pretty clear that President Karzai does not fully believe in the war strategy," he said. "I think it’s been true for a while, frankly, partly because the war’s been so frustrating for him and for us. But his confidence level that the downsides of war are worth it has declined.”

Building the confidence of Afghans is key at this stage in efforts to hand over security responsibility to Afghan national security forces, a process expected to be complete by the time most international troops withdraw at the end of 2014.

Senior NATO officials say they do not believe the growing Afghan restrictions on the operations will ultimately hinder their overall mission. As one NATO official put it, some tactical successes are not worth the strategic risk of losing the confidence of the Afghan people.

O’Hanlon saw a positive sign in the Afghan government’s growing assertiveness. He said, "Afghans or at least President Karzai are behaving like they control their own country and they’re taking on sovereign responsibility. That’s a transition that needs to be happening, is happening, and needs to be complete pretty soon. That mentality is actually appropriate. We don’t want  a dependent state.”

President Obama has announced that more than half of the 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will be out by this time next year. The U.S. says that exit will be gradual so as to keep enough troops in place to advise, train and assist Afghan forces during this year’s fighting season and next year’s elections.

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