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Afghan dynamics altering U.S. efforts to wind down war

An order barring elite troops from Wardak province over a slaying jeopardizes a model for a reduced U.S. troop presence. Some see political factors at play.

March 05, 2013|By Shashank Bengali, Hashmat Baktash and David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times
  • Afghan students in Jalalabad burn a mock American flag in protest of U.S. special forces, who have been accused in the slaying of a student in Wardak province. The U.S. military denies the elite forces were responsible for the man's death.
Afghan students in Jalalabad burn a mock American flag in protest of U.S.… (Abdul Mueed / European Pressphoto…)

MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — The story was gruesome: A university student, captured in a U.S. special forces raid, was found decapitated and with his fingers sliced off.

Amid a groundswell of public anger, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office cited that incident, as well as reports that nine villagers had been abducted from their homes, when he decided last week to bar the elite U.S. troops from a volatile province at the doorstep of Kabul, a move that could one day put the capital at risk.

But the account of the young man's death was wrong, U.S. and local Afghan officials say.

He was snared by armed men, not U.S. forces or their Afghan allies, according to Afghan law enforcement officials. In police photos of the body, he has one finger chopped off and a gash on one side of his neck, but he wasn't beheaded.

Crucially, say Afghan officials who investigated the slaying, the bearded veterinary student known as Nasratullah was a Taliban facilitator whose brother is serving time for planting so-called sticky bombs — explosives that attach with magnets. They believe that Nasratullah was killed in a power struggle between the Taliban and another Islamist faction in insurgent-ridden Wardak province, and that tribal elders here, perhaps coerced by militants, blamed Americans to fuel an outcry against U.S. troops.

If that was the case, it worked. On Feb. 24, Karzai ordered U.S. special forces to leave Wardak within two weeks.

The decision has jeopardized a counter-terrorism campaign seen as a model for a much smaller American military force that is expected to remain in Afghanistan after most U.S. troops withdraw by late next year. Commanders say the post-2014 mission is likely to rely heavily on special operations troops mentoring Afghans and carrying out operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda.

American officials are trying to persuade Karzai to reverse the order. "Obviously we would be reluctant to see our forces not able to operate there right now," Marine Gen. James Mattis, who heads U.S. Central Command, told a congressional hearing Tuesday.

The episode also illustrates how U.S. efforts to wind down the 12-year war are being altered by local politics and an increasingly assertive Karzai, who in recent weeks has issued orders to limit coalition airstrikes and bring under Afghan control the various unofficial militias recruited by coalition forces. By pressing the U.S., the Afghan leader may be courting new alliances, including with the Taliban, while attempting to squeeze concessions from the Obama administration.

Provincial leaders in Wardak believe that the latest claims of murder and abuse by Americans and Afghans under U.S. control are being fed by the Taliban and the militant Hezb-i-Islami party, insurgent groups that have been battered by the elite U.S. forces. The Wardak leaders say Karzai acted without consulting police and intelligence officials who were deeply skeptical of the villagers' allegations and were as blindsided by the decision as American officials.

"It made me very upset," Haji Abdulrazaq Quraishi, the deputy police chief in Wardak, said in his office in this small, mountain-ringed provincial capital 20 miles from Kabul.

"This was not a decision based on facts," he said. "It was a decision that will help our enemies. And it was a decision made without asking all the security sources in the province whose job it is to investigate."

Two U.S. officials said a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation had not found evidence supporting the villagers' accusations of mistreatment by American soldiers and allied Afghan militias.

"I am confident in saying that we didn't cut anyone's head off and we didn't kidnap anyone," said an American official briefed on the inquiry, which is expected to be finished within days. He requested anonymity in discussing the investigation, which has not been completed.

Four of the nine men that Kabul said had "disappeared" were taken prisoner in joint raids in November and December by U.S. and Afghan special operations troops, he said. They are suspected of involvement in insurgent attacks and are being held at the Parwan prison north of Kabul, the official said. The U.S. had no contact with the other five men, the official said.

Karzai demanded that the elite U.S. troops, who reportedly operate in at least three districts in Wardak even though their activities are officially classified, leave the province by Sunday. Wardak has been one of Afghanistan's most contested provinces; in 2011, Taliban fighters here shot down a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter, killing 38 U.S. and Afghan troops, including 17 Navy SEALs.

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