- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 20, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. military and the Afghan government reached a deal Wednesday on a gradual pullout of American special forces and their Afghan counterparts from a contentious eastern province, officials said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has blamed the troops for egregious human rights abuses in Wardak province, allegations that U.S. military officials steadfastly have denied.

However, NATO forces said in a statement that commander Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. agreed with Mr. Karzai to remove American troops first from Wardak’s Nerkh district and then later from other parts of the province.

Gen. Zahir Azimi, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, confirmed in a news conference in Kabul on Wednesday that there had been a deal.

“The international forces are ready to withdraw the special forces from Nirkh district of Maidan Wardak province, and Afghan army units are going to replace them in the coming days,” Gen. Azimi said, adding that there are no other U.S. commando units in the rest of the province.

A U.S. military official explained that a small, mostly U.S. Army special operations team would withdraw from Nerkh, as would the Afghan Local Police force that works alongside the Americans.

The deal marked a political win for Mr. Karzai, who long has complained that the U.S. special operations troops and their Afghan allies were outside his control. It will also speed the handover of security in the troubled province faster than U.S. officials and some members of Mr. Karzai’s government had recommended or planned.

U.S. and Afghan officials privately have expressed concern that the inexperienced Afghan security forces are not yet ready to take over in such a key area. Wardak and neighboring Logar province are used as staging grounds for the Taliban and insurgents from the Haqqani network to launch attacks on the capital, Kabul.

Only last Friday, Afghan intelligence seized a truck loaded with almost 8.8 tons of homemade explosives just east of Kabul, which intelligence officials believe could have taken out a square mile of the city.

The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to recount their disagreement with Mr. Karzai and concerns over the deal.

Speaking ahead of the announcement of the deal, Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizee said the Afghan security forces were going to take control of the province eventually, so the gradual transfer “can be a testing period.”

Mr. Faizee insisted earlier this week that an Afghan American working for the U.S. special operations forces was filmed abusing a suspect, on U.S. orders. The spokesman said the film was obtained during an Afghan defense ministry investigation, which was completed over the weekend.

Gen. Dunford, the U.S. commander of all forces in Afghanistan, rejected the abuse charge in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. He said a recently completed U.S. investigation found the interpreter in question was not working with U.S. forces at the time of the incident.

It was not clear what the agreement would mean for dozens of small U.S. special operations outposts throughout Afghanistan, and the Afghans units partnered with them.

Such Afghan units, known as local police, were started by U.S. forces but have been incorporated into the Afghan Ministry of Interior and answer to the local district police chief, according to an Afghan security official who spoke on condition of anonymity as a condition of discussing the sometimes controversial program.

Mr. Karzai has alleged they are “outside his control,” said Mr. Faizee, because some units have been caught preying on locals with impromptu checkpoints or abusing the civilians under their care. But U.S. and Afghan officials point out the Afghan Interior Ministry prosecuted five local police accused of rape last year and sentenced them to long jail sentences.

Senior coalition officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as a condition of describing sensitive intelligence, explained that the Afghan Local Police have proved such an effective tool against the Taliban in outlying districts that the insurgents have focused much of their firepower on them in the past two years. The officials.

In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, a protest turned deadly when police opened fire on a crowd marching on Wednesday morning in Musa Quala district in Helmand province, according to provincial governor’s spokesman Ahmad Zarak.

Mr. Zarak said four civilians were killed and more wounded when a “militant” infiltrated the marchers and opened fire on police from the center of the crowd.

Obaidullah Jan, one of the protesters, told the AP that the demonstrators did not fire at all but rather that the police opened fire when the crowd reached 100 yards from their position. Mr. Jan claimed many more people were killed than the governor’s office reports.

Mr. Zarak said the crowd was protesting the alleged desecration of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, by a member of the police force.

• Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, contributed to this article.

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