JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he believes U.S. 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 U.S. forces to leave the province just outside Kabul because of allegations that Afghans working with the commandos were involved in abusive behavior 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 defense official said that while it's not yet clear what will come out of Hagel's meeting with Karzai, the U.S. believes the door is not closed to resolving the issues.
A coalition official who works with special operations forces said Saturday 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 U.S. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized 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 U.S. 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 Saturday.
The order for the U.S. 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 U.S. does not want to create an opening for insurgents to more easily make their way to Kabul.
U.S. officials also insist they have seen no evidence that American forces were involved in the abuse of Afghan civilians.