KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. military leaders on Saturday formally handed over security responsibilities to Afghan troops in an area of Wardak province that was the focus of claims by President Hamid Karzai that American troops were responsible for kidnappings and human rights abuses.
The transfer of a base in the Nirkh district of Wardak province to Afghan troops came 10 days after Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, reached an agreement with Karzai to carry out the handover.
Karzai initially wanted all American special operations forces out of Wardak, but later agreed to limit the immediate handover to Nirkh.
Wardak is regarded as a key province because it serves as a western gateway to Kabul, the Afghan capital. Provincial law enforcement officials have said they are worried that the removal of U.S. special operations forces from Wardak could erode security there and give Taliban militants space from which to launch attacks on Kabul, about half an hour's drive away.
"As we pledged, our forces have transitioned Nirkh district to Afghan national security forces, and they have now assumed full responsibility for security in this key district," Dunford said in a prepared statement. "The rest of Wardak will continue to transition over time, as Afghan forces continue to grow in capability and capacity."
Karzai further strained relations between Kabul and Washington by claiming that American special operations forces and U.S.-trained Afghan police in Wardak had recently kidnapped nine villagers from Nirkh and had mutilated the body of another villager from another district after killing him.
U.S. military leaders adamantly denied the allegations. Local law enforcement and provincial officials in Wardak also have said there was no basis for Karzai's accusations.
Afghan police who investigated the man's slaying said he was a Taliban facilitator killed amid a power struggle between rival Islamist groups. U.S. officials have said they arrested four of the nine men Karzai claimed were abducted and are holding them on suspicion of involvement in insurgent attacks, and had no contact with the other five men.
No timetable has been set for the handover of the rest of Wardak province to Afghan troops.
U.S. special operations forces will continue to visit the Afghan team in Nirkh, and work throughout the rest of the province, Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, the top U.S. special operations commander in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press in an interview on Saturday.
Currently, special operations teams go into an area, get to know the power brokers and tribesmen, and then help train Afghan men selected by the locals.