U.S. special operations forces handed over their base in a strategic district of eastern Afghanistan to local Afghan special forces on Saturday, a senior U.S. commander said. The withdrawal satisfies a demand by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that U.S. forces leave the area after allegations that the Americans' Afghan counterparts committed human rights abuses there on U.S. orders.
The transfer of authority ends a particularly rocky episode in the strained relations between the U.S. and Karzai. He had insisted that U.S. forces leave Nirkh district in Wardak province over the alleged torture, kidnapping and summary execution of militant suspects there — charges U.S. officials firmly denied.
The incident shows the larger struggle of Karzai's government to assert its authority over security matters, even as its green security forces try to assume control of much of the country from coalition forces on a rushed timeline, ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of most of coalition forces by December 2014.
"We're coming out of Nirkh," said Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, the top U.S. special operations commander in Afghanistan, in an interview with The Associated Press.
Attaullah Khogyani, spokesman for the governor of Wardak province outside Kabul, confirmed that U.S. special operations forces withdrew and were replaced by a joint Afghan security forces team.
Karzai had originally demanded the U.S. special operations forces pull out from the entire province, a gateway and staging area for Taliban and other militants for attacks on the capital Kabul. But he scaled down his demands to just the single district after negotiations with top commander in Afghanistan Gen. Joseph Dunford and other U.S. officials.
"President Karzai was specific, it's only for Nirkh, that was a provocative point," Thomas said. "American special operations forces are integral in the defense of Wardak from now until the foreseeable future."
U.S. commandos will also continue to visit the Afghan team in Nirkh.
"We're going to support them from a distance," Thomas said. "The reality is there was such a groundswell of support (from locals) in Wardak after the initial allegations that we're keeping several teams down there to work with the Afghan security forces for the future, with an idea that we'll transition over time."
The American special operations troops are paired with and live alongside locally recruited and trained teams known as Afghan local police. Thomas said most of the local police will be paired with Afghan security forces by the end of the summer, with the Americans making occasional visits as they will do in Nirkh, to assess whether they need logistic or other support.
One Wardak government official expressed relief that the agreement crafted with Karzai did not mean the complete pullout of U.S. forces from the province, saying that local officials were worried their new forces would not yet be able to keep hardcore insurgents out of the area.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because his comments run counter to public statements made by Karzai that the Afghan security forces are ready for complete independence in Wardak.
Meanwhile, Taliban militants attacked a police convoy Saturday morning in Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan, kicking off a fierce gun battle, according to deputy provincial police chief Col. Mohammad Hussain.
The police requested a coalition air strike, which hit the militants' position and killed 15 fighters but also wounded nine civilians including a woman and child, Hussain said. He did not report any police casualties.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.
Follow Kimberly Dozier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KimberlyDozier