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US hands control of troubled province to Afghan forces

KABUL — Afghan special forces took control of part of a troubled province bordering Kabul from US troops on Saturday, ending a weeks-long dispute over abuse allegations that prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to order all American forces out of the area.

The hand-over highlighted the Karzai government’s struggle to more quickly assert its authority over security matters before the scheduled withdrawal of most of coalition forces by December 2014.

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The transfer of control in Nirkh district of Wardak province — a gateway and staging area for militant attacks on the capital — ends a rocky episode in the strained relationship between the United States and Karzai.

Karzai had angrily insisted that US forces leave Nirkh over the alleged torture, kidnapping, and summary execution of militant suspects there — charges US officials firmly denied.

“As we pledged, our forces have transitioned Nirkh district to Afghan national security forces and they have now assumed full responsibility for security,” said US General Joseph Dunford, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He said the rest of Wardak would transition “over time.”

Karzai has had longstanding unease with US special operations forces, which he blames for causing civilian casualties, and the 21,000 members of the Afghan local police who work with them.

He has complained bitterly and publicly that the local police are “militias” and believes they are “outside his control,” according to his spokesman Aimal Faizi.

US special operations forces will continue to visit the Afghan team in Nirkh, and work throughout the rest of the province, said Major General Tony Thomas, the top US special operations commander in Afghanistan.

“American special operations forces are integral in the defense of Wardak from now until the foreseeable future,” Thomas said in an interview Saturday at Camp Integrity, the special operations compound on the outskirts of Kabul.

The Afghan president had originally demanded the US special operations forces pull out of the entire province, but he scaled down his sweeping demand to just Nirkh district after negotiations with Dunford and other US officials.

US officials feared Karzai was close to banning US special operations teams altogether when he declared earlier this year, while standing next to President Obama in Washington, that all American forces would be out of Afghan villages by spring.

Karzai was eventually persuaded to accept a more gradual transition for the country overall, just as he was with Wardak.

Under that plan, US special operations forces will leave the villages during the summer.

“The last teams will go in this summer and from that point out, when we culminate [hand over] an area, we’ll bring the teams out,” Thomas said.

“More importantly, we’re setting up . . . training centers that are run by Afghans,” Thomas said. “We’re working ourselves out of a job.”

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