By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan and U.S. officials are working on a compromise deal to allow American special forces to stay in a strategically key province near the capital in return for full Afghan control of a controversial jail, a top Kabul official said.
President Hamid Karzai's decision to expel special forces from Wardak province has angered U.S. defense officials who worry their exit could allow insurgents to strengthen their presence the area and use it as a base to attack Kabul, only 25 km (15 miles) away.
U.S. special forces tasked with fighting the Taliban were scheduled to leave the restive province a week ago, but U.S. and Afghan officials have told Reuters they are still operating there.
"There might be a compromise on Wardak when the Afghan side is given full control of Bagram prison, which would help President Karzai who views the issue as a matter of sovereignty," a senior government official told Reuters at the weekend, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter.
The U.S. partly handed over the high-security prison and around 3,000 suspected Taliban fighters to Afghan control last year, but has not transferred hundreds of Taliban fighters to Afghan custody over concerns they will be released.
During a phone call on Saturday Karzai and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel "agreed to use the next week to conduct intensive work with a view to concluding an agreement", the Pentagon said.
The transfer of control of the detention centre at Bagram air base is a persistent source of tension, with Karzai's office warning in a statement on Wednesday that "any more delays could harm bilateral relations".
U.S. commanders want to ensure that dangerous prisoners will not be released back into the battlefield, but Karzai has raised alarms by warning that any "innocent" prisoners being held at the facility will be released.
The prison transfer, along with the Wardak order, has strained ties as Washington begins to wind down operations before an end-2014 deadline to withdraw most combat troops.
Karzai ordered U.S. special forces to leave Wardak province after residents complained that they, and Afghans working with them, were torturing and killing civilians, an allegation strongly denied by the Americans.
A NATO official told Reuters that operations continue in Wardak, and stressed that they are "helpful both to the coalition and to the Afghans".
"It's unfortunate ... that strong security steps have become an unnecessary lightning rod that's directed energy to the wrong places politically," the official said.
Opposition politicians say Karzai's order to expel the U.S. special forces was a political move intended to bolster his party's support base ahead of a presidential election next year. Karzai is not allowed to stand again.
The expulsion order has raised fears that insurgents will be emboldened to move into Wardak, just a 40-minute drive from Kabul, and use the area to stage attacks on the capital.
Some in Wardak however are furious U.S. special forces are still operating in the province, and about 1,000 residents converged on the capital on Saturday demanding they leave.
U.S. special forces are expected to play a major role in Afghanistan after most NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of next year, and Karzai's decision to expel them was seen as complicating talks between the United States and Afghanistan over the scope of U.S. operations after the pull-out.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)