The Pentagon said Saturday that four Afghans from the Guantanamo Bay detention center have been returned to their home country in what U.S. officials are citing as a sign of their confidence in new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Obama administration officials said they worked quickly to fulfil the request from Ghani, in office just three months, to return the four, who had been cleared for transfer as a kind of reconciliation and mark of improved U.S.-Afghan relations.
There is no requirement that the Afghan government further detain the men, identified as Mohammed Zahir, Shawali Khan, Abdul Ghani and Khi Ali Gul.
Eight Afghans are among the 132 detainees remaining at Guantanamo.
The move is the latest in a series of transfers during the past two months. President Barack Obama has been pushing to reduce the number of detainees as he tries to make progress toward his goal of closing the globally condemned detention center for suspected terrorists.
Earlier this month, six prisoners held for 12 years at Guantanamo Bay were released in Uruguay, a South American nation with only a tiny Muslim population, amid a renewed push by President Barack Obama to close the prison.
The six men — four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian — were detained as suspected militants with ties to al-Qaeda in 2002 but were never charged.
Administration officials, speaking on a condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the Afghan prisoner release publicly, say more transfers are expected in the coming weeks.
Guantanamo now holds the lowest number of detainees since shortly after it opened nearly 13 years ago in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those remaining include 64 approved for transfer.
Although the four Afghans have long been approved for transfer, the move sparked debate in Washington. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not immediately sign off after Gen. John F. Campbell, the top American commander in Afghanistan, raised concerns they could pose a danger to troops in the country. Administration officials say Campbell and all military leaders on the ground have now screened the move.
"The United States is grateful to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the Pentagon statement said "The United States coordinated with the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures."
One administration official involved in the review said most, if not all, the terrorism accusations against the men had been discarded and each is considered a low-level operative at best.
Before he can close Guantanamo, Obama faces the challenge of working out what to do with any detainees who aren't cleared for transfer — either because the United States wants to prosecute them or continuing holding them because they are considered too dangerous to release. Congress has passed legislation blocking detainees from coming the U.S. for detention or trial.
Some Guantanamo opponents are questioning whether the United States has the authority to continue detaining prisoners captured in the Afghan conflict after the end of combat operations at year's end.
"We will certainly expect to see legal challenges to continued detention at the end of hostilities, which is just in a couple weeks," said J. Wells Dixon, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Dixon has assisted on the case of Khan and said hopefully he can reunite with his father and brother after nearly 13 years at Guantanamo.
"He was sent to Guantanamo on the flimsiest of allegations that were implausible on their face and never fully investigated," Dixon argued. "He never should have been there."
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