MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan – An Afghan policeman gunned down two U.S. special forces on Monday in Wardak province, less than 24 hours after President Hamid Karzai's deadline expired for them to leave the area where residents have grown increasingly hostile toward the Americans.
Despite Karzai's orders, the American special forces remain in the province where dozens of villagers accuse the Americans and their Afghan partners of intimidation through unprovoked beatings, mass arrests and forced detentions. The shootout, which also killed two Afghan policemen, only deepens the distrust.
The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan says it has found no evidence to support the claims of abuse. But infuriated by the villagers' allegations, Karzai two weeks ago ordered U.S. special operations forces to withdraw by midnight Sunday from Wardak province, 45 kilometers (27 miles) south of the capital, Kabul.
Most international forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Wardak, like the rest of the country, is slated to be eventually handed over to Afghan forces, but U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, indicated on Sunday that the troops were not leaving Wardak province just yet.
"The only issue is the timeline and the methodology, and we're still working on that," Dunford said.
Wardak has a stubborn insurgency on the doorstep of the capital Kabul and its location has led some U.S. military officials to warn that a premature withdrawal of U.S. special operations forces would open a "six-lane highway" into Kabul for the Taliban. But Afghan security forces disagree, saying they don't think insurgents can capture the provincial capital.
On Monday, an Afghan policeman stood up in the back of a pickup truck, grabbed a machine gun and started firing at U.S. special forces and other Afghan policemen at a police compound in Wardak's Jalrez district, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Maidan Shahr, said the province's Deputy Police Chief Abdul Razaq Koraishi.
Two U.S. special operations forces and two Afghan policemen were killed and four others were wounded in the gunfight before the assailant was gunned down, Koraishi said.
It is unclear whether the assailant was targeting the Afghan policemen along with the U.S. special operations forces and whether they were killed by the assailant's bullets or during the crossfire. It's also unclear whether the incident was directly related to the simmering tensions between villagers in Wardak who are unhappy with the U.S. special operations forces and their Afghan partners.
Afghan police Sgt. Agha Mirza summed up the hostility toward U.S. special forces that others also expressed to The Associated Press during a series of interviews Sunday in the province.
"They are always disturbing the people," Mirza said, standing with his rifle slung over his shoulder at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Wardak's capital, Maidan Shahr. "If they disturb me, I have a gun."
Grizzled and gray, Mohammed Nabi told the AP that his eldest son was picked up by U.S. special operations forces more than three months ago. No one has told his family where he is or why he was arrested.
"If they don't go, we will go," Nabi said. "We will leave this place. I will set up a tent anywhere."
He said dozens of families have already moved out of his home village of Deh Afghanan because of alleged mistreatment by the special forces and their Afghan partners. He alleged that both "beat people and make our lives miserable."
"This is no life for us or for our children," he said.
Nabi said he and about 80 other Afghan men were detained two weeks ago following Friday prayers at the Kar Ka Mubarak mosque in Deh Afghanan, a few kilometers (miles) southeast of Maidan Shahr.
"For two hours, we stood in the snow," Nabi said. "One old man wanted to go the bathroom and they said: 'Go in your pants.'"
His brother nodded in agreement, and other men started shouting about their own experiences.
A carpenter sanding wood at a nearby workshop said he was stopped on his motorcycle as he was on his way to work in neighboring Dah Do village and detained for five hours.
"It was 3 p.m. They stopped me and said I was a spy for the Taliban," said Abdullah, who uses only one name.
He wiped away a few tears, calling them tears of "shame because I was beaten and couldn't do anything." Abdullah said an Afghan soldier with the U.S. special forces slammed the butt of his rifle into his neck, causing a hairline fracture of one of his vertebrae.
Tucked into the corner of a walled compound in Maidan Shahr, men from a half dozen nearby villages, including some from Jalrez district, gathered in a chilly room to recount a litany of allegations of abuses by U.S. special operations forces and the Afghan soldiers who accompany them.
An elderly Habib Noor lifted his long gray tunic to show bandages where he said he was beaten by two special forces and their Afghan translator, Zikrya. He spoke softly, his head bent toward the floor.
"I can't tell you the bad words he used against me," he said, referring to one of the U.S. soldiers. "I am too ashamed to tell you the words."
Noor leaned against a wall, wrapping his frail, lanky frame in a blanket against the icy wind that whistled through the cement block building. Inside the grimy room, several men showed letters they had written to Karzai. Their letters were endorsed by other villagers, police and even intelligence officials attesting to the innocence of the men whom they said had been picked up by U.S. special forces.
Last week, they showed the same documents to an Afghan and a U.S. general who listened to their stories and took the documents, they said. Neither the U.S. military nor the Afghan government answered the AP's request for an interview about the allegations.
Nabi's brother, Ishaq, who had been picked up along with Nabi's son, Mohammed Hassan, retrieved a tattered piece of paper from an inside pocket. He unfolded it carefully and pointed to signatures accompanied by their thumb prints and a government seal from local authorities.
On the other side, was a long letter addressed to Karzai. It told of his and Hassan's arrest in Deh Afghanan by Afghan and U.S. special operations forces. The letter, dated more than two months ago, asks Karzai to help locate Hassan, who worked for eight years as a gardener for the municipality.
"We aren't even asking that they release him. If he has done something, then let them put him on trial," Nabi said about his son. "But we just want to know where he is, to see him, and if he is dead, then give us his body so we can bury him."
Most of the men in the room were fathers and uncles with gray beards, but there was a sprinkling of younger men, brothers, including some who claimed that they too had been picked up and later released. They all showed pictures of missing relatives and recounted how they searched for them by going to local government officials, knocking on the doors of U.S. military compounds and petitioning the International Committee for the Red Cross.
The AP interviewed dozens of other people who told similar stories. Most, however, made a distinction between special forces and conventional American troops, with whom they said they had no quarrel.
Mullah Mohmmed Kadeem, a village councilor, warned that if the special forces stayed, there would be an "uprising" in Wardak.
"People won't accept it. We will protest until they leave," he said.
Naimatullah, who claimed his two brothers were in the custody of U.S. special forces, said the United States humiliated Karzai by ignoring his deadline for the troop withdrawal.
"If they don't go when the president tells them to go, it shows everything is with the Americans and Karzai is just like a child," he said. "He is the president of Afghanistan and if he can't tell them to leave, how can he help us find our family members? What can we do?"
Associated Press Writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report. Kathy Gannon is the AP's special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon