The Future of Special Forces in Afghanistan

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 3:08 PM EST

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that he was barring U.S. troops from Wardak province after reports that U.S. Special Forces had tortured and murdered innocent people. Among other things Karzai said that nine villagers had been abducted from their homes and a young man was found decapitated and with his fingers sliced off. Today, the LA Times reports that Karzai was probably mistaken:

The account of the young man's death was wrong, U.S. and local Afghan officials say.

He was snared by armed men, not U.S. forces or their Afghan allies, according to Afghan law enforcement officials. In police photos of the body, he has one finger chopped off and a gash on one side of his neck, but he wasn't beheaded.

Crucially, say Afghan officials who investigated the slaying, the bearded veterinary student known as Nasratullah was a Taliban facilitator whose brother is serving time for planting so-called sticky bombs — explosives that attach with magnets. They believe that Nasratullah was killed in a power struggle between the Taliban and another Islamist faction in insurgent-ridden Wardak province, and that tribal elders here, perhaps coerced by militants, blamed Americans to fuel an outcry against U.S. troops.

A couple of days after Karzai's announcement, Yochi Dreazen suggested that it was really just a bit of shadow boxing. What Karzai is really doing is reacting to President Obama's plan to keep Special Forces troops in Afghanistan even after most other troops have been withdrawn:

The White House has made clear that sizable numbers of Special Operations forces will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future....Here at home, bearded commandos from units like the Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force are celebrated in best-selling books like "American Sniper" and the popular, if controversial, movie "Zero Dark Thirty." Video games featuring the elite troops have collectively grossed billions of dollars. Americans love heroes, and the men (they are always men) who swoop into fortified compounds at night to kill or capture wanted terrorists seem to fit the bill perfectly.

That is not, to put it very mildly, how those troops are seen in Afghanistan, where the commandos are routinely accused of killing or arresting the wrong targets and calling in air strikes which result in significant numbers of civilian deaths.

The night raids the elite units use to catch wanted Afghans while they're asleep are particularly hated. Afghans complain that it's a grave cultural insult for male troops to search women or enter a home uninvited. A night raid earlier this month which killed a pregnant woman has made the missions even more unpopular.

I don't have any independent assessment of all this. But we should probably expect a lot more fireworks over the next 24 months as we draw down troops in Afghanistan. It's likely to get pretty ugly.