Hagel optimistic on Afghan commando agreement
Jalalabad (Afghanistan): US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he believes US officials will be able to work things out with Afghan leaders who have ordered special operations forces out of Wardak province, even though the deadline for their removal is Monday.
Hagel is expected to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who ordered the US forces to leave the province just outside Kabul because of allegations that Afghans working with the commandos were involved in abusive behaviour and torture.
"I feel confident that we'll be able to work this out," Hagel told reporters during a stop at Jalalabad Airfield, where he met with commanders and spoke to troops.
A senior defence official said that while it's not yet clear what will come out of Hagel's meeting with Karzai, the US believes the door is not closed to resolving the issues.
A coalition official who works with special operations forces said today that while the commandos are ready to pull out, their operations are continuing at this point, and there is some hope that an 11th hour negotiation can be reached that will allow them to stay. The official said the Afghan forces in Wardak are not yet ready to operate without the continued assistance and training from the US. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the matter.
According to Brigadier Adam Findlay, NATO's deputy chief of staff of operations and a member of the Australian military, an option would be to replace the special operators with conventional military forces. Findlay said NATO officials have made provisional plans to withdraw the commandos if Karzai sticks to his edict after meetings this weekend with Hagel and the top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford.
"What we've got to try to do is go to a middle ground that meets the president's frustration," but also keeps insurgents from using Wardak as a staging ground to launch attacks on the capital, Findlay told The Associated Press today.
The order for the US forces to leave comes despite worries that Wardak could be more vulnerable to the Taliban and insurgents. The official who works with commando forces said the US does not want to create an opening for insurgents to more easily make their way to Kabul.
US officials also insist they have seen no evidence that American forces were involved in the abuse of Afghan civilians.
"Each of those accusations has been answered, and we're not involved," said NATO's Findlay. "There are obviously atrocities occurring there, but it's not linked to us, and the kind of atrocities we are seeing, fingers cut off, other mutilations to bodies, is just not the way we work."