The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan says it has found no evidence to support Afghan allegations of misconduct by U.S. Special Forces stationed in a strategic central province bordering Kabul.
In an unprecedented move on Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave U.S. Special Forces two weeks to leave Wardak province, west of Kabul, citing allegations that local Afghan forces working with foreign partners in the region are torturing and abusing Afghan citizens.
But General Gunter Katz, spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told reporters in Kabul Monday the accusations are unfounded.
"There have been various allegations of special forces conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner in Maiden Wardak," he said, stating the coalition takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and thoroughly investigates facts surrounding them. "So far, we could not find evidence that would support these allegations. ISAF will work with representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to find a solution to the concerns of the [Afghan] citizens."
Katz avoided commentary on the specific nature of the allegations, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss them further before coalition officials meet with their partners in the Afghan government.
President Karzai issued a decree ordering U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak province after discussing the issue earlier Sunday with his National Security Council. A presidential statement cited two recent examples of alleged misconduct by U.S. Special Forces or their allied Afghan militias in Wardak. In one incident, it said nine people disappeared during an operation by what it called a "suspicious force," while in the other, the tortured body of a student was found two days after he was "taken away at night from his home."
Karzai's office said the U.S. military denied any involvement in such cases. It said Afghan security forces will bring to justice those responsible for the abuses and urged local residents to help identify the culprits.
According to presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi, the allegations stem from counter-insurgency operations NATO has conducted recently in the strategically important central Afghan province with the help of local personnel. Karzai's decree, Faizi said, was based on detailed government investigations into charges that armed individuals who are part of a U.S. special force deployed in the area engaged in "harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people."
Faizi claimed that top officials, including the provincial governor and speaker of the parliament's upper house, are among those who provided evidence to the president.
"According to them and the evidence they have provided so for to the officials in the government, it shows that these operations are conducted by the U.S. Special Forces and there are some Afghans working within these Special Forces' groups and in the operations which have taken place in the province," he said. "But they are part of the U.S. special forces, according to our sources and according to our local officials there in the province."
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's defense ministry said in a statement Monday that Afghan forces are ready to assume security responsibilities in Wardak province following the pullout of foreign forces. The ministry vowed to implement the presidential decree to "make sure" all U.S. Special Forces leave the province within the stipulated time period.
Earlier this month, Karzai issued a decree banning Afghan security forces from calling in NATO air strikes while battling insurgents in residential areas, in order to prevent civilian casualties.
The U.S.-led coalition plans to withdraw most combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year. The United States is in talks with the Afghan government to allow some U.S. forces to remain in the country past 2014. But observers fear the latest move could complicate those negations.
It is not clear how a pullout of U.S. Special Forces from the province would affect the fight against the Taliban.
NATO troops have facilities in Wardak. But Afghan government forces already have taken a security lead in some parts of the province as part of a NATO plan to withdraw most of its troops from the country by the end of 2014. Taliban attacks in Wardak also have declined in recent months.
Wardak's population is predominantly Pashtun, the same ethnic group as the Taliban.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.