|Afghan security vacuum feared along "gateway to Kabul"
||Mirwais Harooni and Michael Georgy
MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan -
The Afghan policeman manning a checkpoint glances at the snow-covered mountains that are home to Taliban fighters and predicts what would happen if elite U.S. forces leave Wardak province, seen as the gateway to the capital of Kabul.
"The Taliban will take over in one day," Mohammad Jamil says. "They are nearby."
Ever since President Hamid Karzai announced late last month that U.S. forces would be barred from the strategic province because of alleged abuses against civilians, Afghan forces who will be left to provide security without them have grown more anxious by the day.
Wardak, just a 40-minute drive from Kabul, is a prime example of what could happen in other parts of Afghanistan as the United States winds down an increasingly unpopular war, now in its 12th year.
U.S. special forces are expected to play a major role after most NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014, and Karzai's decision could complicate negotiations between the United States and Afghanistan over the scope of U.S. operations after the pull-out.
"It's special forces who go usually on the front lines and fight with Taliban," said a second Afghan policeman, Mir Hussain. "If we make them leave this province than there won't be anybody to fight them. It's obvious that as soon as they leave our province the Taliban will return to power here."
Strategically located astride the Western approach to Kabul, Wardak is ideally placed for the insurgents who control nearby mountain villages to use as a staging ground for suicide operations into the city, home to nearly 5 million people and dozens of diplomatic missions.
Militants already carry out ambushes, shooting attacks and suicide bombings on American and Afghan forces there.
Fears that the departures of U.S. special forces will embolden the insurgents are heightened by the arrival of spring, which traditionally marks the start of Afghanistan's "fighting season" as the snow melts.
Earlier this week, two U.S. soldiers, reported to be special forces, were killed in an attack in the province.
Karzai ordered U.S. special forces to leave after residents complained that they, and Afghans working with them, were torturing and killing civilians, an allegation strongly denied by the Americans.
Even after the deadline for U.S. special forces to withdraw passed on Sunday, General Abdul Razaq, a senior police detective, told Reuters they were still in Wardak, a collection of mostly apple and apricot farms surrounded by mountains.
U.S. forces have refused to comment on their deployment.
Razaq said local officials had urged the Interior Ministry to provide strong support if the American forces leave, including artillery and reinforcements.
Some residents speak with hatred about the elite U.S. forces and believe allegations that they committed atrocities.
"Every day they kill our innocent people," said Abdul Ghafoor, 54, without offering any evidence to back the accusations, as his companions nodded in agreement.
But others seem far more worried about the security vacuum the province may face. Many remember how Wardak was the launching pad for the Taliban when they took over Kabul and much of the country in 1996.
They don't have to look far. Collapsed buildings, including one that served as a coordination centre for security forces, are a potent reminder of the devastation wreaked by Taliban suicide bombings.
"A small number of people from Wardak province had complained to President Karzai about special forces but now they also know that their decision wasn't right," said Hameeda Akbari, a member of parliament from Wardak.
"They want to find a way to solve the problem and keep special forces for some more time. If special forces leave Wardak, the security situation will get worse."
KABUL RISK HEIGHTENS
Some fear the dangers could reach far beyond the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr, where Afghan policemen speed past a children's playground called Peace Park in jeeps mounted with machine guns.
"As soon as these forces leave this province not only Wardak, but even some parts of Kabul, will be occupied by Taliban and Kabul security will be in danger," said Haji Rokai, a tribal elder. "So I hope that the government takes a better decision and keep these forces here for longer period."
Afghan Army Chief of Staff Sher Mohammad Karimi recently told Reuters most of the suicide attacks in Kabul were planned just 25 km (15 miles) away in Wardak.
"It is one of our biggest concerns," he said.
Jittery Afghan forces have set up a multitude of checkpoints along Maidan Shahr's two paved roads. Intelligence agents, police and soldiers stop and question motorists travelling on potholed, dusty streets.
"We got a tip-off that the Taliban were sending a suicide bomber here today to carry out a mission," said an Afghan intelligence agent who checked vehicles.
LIVING IN FEAR
It is not only the Taliban who are waiting to attack. The al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, believed to be the United States' deadliest foe in Afghanistan, and other insurgent groups like Hizb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are also active.
In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, a truck bomb in Wardak wounded 77 American soldiers. A month earlier, the Taliban shot down a transport helicopter in Wardak, killing all 38 people on board, including 25 U.S. special forces.
The Taliban haven't lost their edge despite the presence of U.S. special forces and their intimidating Afghan partners, who ride off-road motorbikes and cover their faces with balaclavas and dark sunglasses.
Afghan security forces, already at a disadvantage because they lack training and equipment, could become less effective if the Americans leave.
"We have five PK light machine guns in our whole district, but the Taliban has more than five in a small checkpoint. So how can we fight with them or protect our people from their atrocities?" asked the policeman Jamil.
He recalls the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from a nearby district, Sayedabad. "The Taliban captured that valley. Now it's a training camp for them where they learn how to attack Afghan and foreign forces."
Provincial officials are not taking any chances. Many of them refuse to spend the night in Wardak for fear of attacks by militants.
"It is a 15-minute drive from my office to my house but I cannot go there," said Esmatullah Asem, head of Maidan Shahr Hospital. "The last time I went home was two years ago. I live in Kabul." (Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Alex Richardson)