The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said Monday it has found no evidence to support allegations that American special forces were involved in the abuse of Afghan civilians in a restive eastern province that serves as a gateway to Kabul.
The statement came as the Afghan government moved ahead with an order to expel the special forces from Wardak province within two weeks, undeterred by fears the decision could leave the area and the neighboring capital more vulnerable to al-Qaida and other insurgents.
Provincial officials and analysts expressed concern the already dangerous province could become more unstable without the American firepower, although they agreed with President Hamid Karzai's decision to investigate the allegations.
Karzai issued the order on Sunday after a meeting of the National Security Council at which Wardak provincial governor Abdul Majid Khogyani and other local officials blamed Afghans working with U.S. special forces for the disappearance of at least nine men and the murder of an Afghan university student. The U.S. forces are being expelled because of their association with the Afghan groups.
Khogyani and the other officials also alleged that the Afghans working for the American special forces were involved in abusive behavior including torture, killings and illegal detentions.
The armed Afghans are not part of the Afghan security forces, the government has said, implying that they are members of secret militias working with the Americans.
Coalition spokesman German Gen. Gunter Katz said the International Security Assistance Force found no evidence showing foreign forces were involved in abuses, but he did not comment on the Afghans allegedly linked to the Americans.
"We take all allegations of misconduct seriously and go to great lengths to determine the facts surrounding them," Katz told reporters. "Over the past few weeks there have been various allegations of special forces conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner" in Wardak.
He added that "so far, we could not find evidence that would support these allegations."
Katz said he would not comment on the allegations until the coalition talks to the Afghan government "in the near future."
An ISAF spokesman, Jamie Graybeal, said that "in recent months, a thorough review has confirmed that no Coalition forces have been involved in the alleged misconduct in Wardak province."
He said that the two sides had agreed to a joint commission to look "into the current concerns of citizens" in Wardak.
Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi, however, said the government had asked NATO about the groups in the past and had not received a satisfactory answer.
Wardak is a lynchpin province that connects the capital to southern Afghanistan, and the country's main north-south highway and trade route runs through its hills and desert plains. It is considered a transit point for insurgents coming from the south — the Taliban heartland — and from the east along the Pakistani frontier where insurgents retain safe havens.
The area outside the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr — an hour's drive from the capital — is so dangerous that local officials reported they often can't go to their offices by road.
It has been the focus of counterinsurgency efforts in recent years and the site of many attacks against coalition and U.S. bases, including one in November that killed three Afghan civilians and wounded 90. In August 2011, insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing 30 American troops, mostly elite Navy SEALs, in Wardak. The crash was the single deadliest loss for U.S. forces in the war.
At least 100 insurgent groups operate in Wardak, including al-Qaida, the Taliban and fighters loyal to the Pakistan-based Haqqani militant network, according to Jawed Kohistani, a political and military analyst. He said recent suicide attacks in the capital were an indication that the situation could deteriorate if special forces withdrew from Wardak.
"They can attack convoys, destabilize the security situation in Kabul," he said. "It is giving them opportunity to get stronger in Wardak, and that will be a real threat to the security of Kabul city."
The Afghan government has said it is confident its own security forces, which took the lead for security in Wardak last December, can deal with the insurgents and stabilize the province.
It is unclear how many of the extremely secretive U.S. special forces are operating in Wardak.
"We never talk about special operating forces. We don't about their numbers either," said Katz.
Afghan forces have been in control of Kabul for years and Katz said then government had assured them that "they are capable enough to provide security" for the capital.
Sher Shah Bazon, a member of the Wardak provincial council, said there were many complaints about Afghan groups working with U.S. special forces, but "we must find a solution for this sort of issue here by talking with the U.S. special forces, which did not happen. Instead a decision was made which I believe most people are not happy with it."
He said that Wardak was so insecure that local officials had problems getting around.
"A district governor or a district police chief in many districts can't go to their offices by road, and if they go they must have a big convoy of security forces with them. So with a security situation like this, the withdrawal of the foreign forces is not a good idea," he said.
Most of the complaints are aimed at the Afghans working with the U.S. special forces, provincial officials said.
"I can say a lack of coordination between the Afghan and foreign forces caused all these problems in Wardak. The withdrawal of the U.S. special forces from Wardak would not be to the benefit of people, government and security of Wardak province. I am sure that would have a negative impact on the security of Kabul city as well," said Mohammad Hazrat Janan, deputy head of provincial council.