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In a blow to US, Afghanistan releases suspected Taliban detainees

The detainees are accused of attacks on NATO and US troops. President Karzai dismisses the evidence against them, deepening his rift with his Western backers. 

Massoud Hossaini/AP
Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers stand guard at the main gate of the Parwan Detention Facility Center on the outskirts of Bagram, some 30 miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014.

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The Afghan government released 65 detainees today that US officials say are responsible for attacks on US and NATO troops. The release drew sharp criticism from US officials and further complicates already tense efforts to negotiate an extension to the US military mission in Afghanistan.

The men were released from the Parwan jail, previously known as the Bagram jail, outside of Kabul. The facility is a point of contention between the US – who says it has extensive evidence against the detainees – and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who “insists there is not enough evidence” against the detainees. The president has called the jail a “Taliban-making factory,” according to the BBC.

The government let free 65 of 88 Afghan detainees in the facility. The men were seen leaving the jail in small groups this morning, according to The New York Times. 

The release is the latest of a series of acts by President Karzai that have inflamed tensions with the US government. Congress has threatened to withdraw the aid that Karzai’s government and the Afghan security forces depend on.

Until last year, Bagram was under the control of US and NATO forces, who then handed it over to Afghan authorities. US officials earlier this week warned Kabul that the detainees are likely to rejoin the Taliban and, rather than being set free, should be prosecuted in Afghan courts, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The US military today released a statement noting its “strong concern about the potential threats these detainees pose to coalition forces and Afghan security forces and civilians.” 

“Detainees from this group of 65 are directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 US or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians,” the statement said. 

The US Embassy in Kabul said the Afghan government would “bear responsibility” for the decision. It complained that it had requested a thorough review of each case. "Instead, the evidence against them was never seriously considered.”

An Afghan panel created to review the detainee cases found that there was not enough evidence against the prisoners and ordered their release, Abdul Shakor Dadras, a member of the panel, told the Times.

Earlier this week, congressional leaders in Washington warned Kabul that a prisoner release could jeopardize US aid

In a congressional hearing Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), said he would introduce a resolution condemning the release of the detainees and would urge his fellow lawmakers to cut off all development assistance to Afghanistan until after the election.

"President Karzai, in my view, is single-handedly destroying this relationship" with Washington, Sen. Graham said.

Rep. Howard McKeon (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the release would be in "direct contravention" of a U.S.-Afghan agreement on detentions.

"I am, frankly, appalled by the Karzai Government's complete lack of respect for our troops, men and women who are fighting to keep Afghanistan standing," he said in a statement.

The prisoner release comes at a time when US officials are already frustrated with Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow the US to maintain a small military force in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism missions after the bulk of its troops withdraw in 2014.

Karzai stunned the US by refusing to sign the agreement, despite negotiating with US Secretary of State John Kerry last fall and getting approval from an Afghan council of elders. As a result, Obama administration officials are increasingly open to withdrawing all troops at the end of the year, the Times reports.

Increasingly vexed by Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, Mr. Obama is trying to figure out what form a residual force might take after the bulk of American troops leave by December and what would happen if no Americans stayed behind at all. The debate has rekindled some of the tensions within the administration that divided it in its early days.

With Mr. Karzai reinforcing Washington’s view of him as an erratic ally, skeptics of the administration’s Afghan strategy are increasingly open to withdrawing entirely at the end of 2014. Some in Mr. Obama’s civilian circle suspect that his generals may be trying to manipulate him with an all-or-nothing approach to a residual force. Military officials say they are trying to leave options open and are themselves more ambivalent than ever about staying.

The internal dynamics involved in the review, described by a variety of current and former White House, administration and military officials, are complicating what could be one of the most important decisions Mr. Obama makes this year. The president wants to avoid a repeat of what has happened in Iraq, which is again under siege, and yet he considers extricating the United States from Afghanistan a signature achievement for his legacy.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the US military, who originally wanted the agreement signed by the end of 2013, has revised its plans to allow the Obama administration to wait until after the Afghanistan presidential elections this spring.

The U.S. military has revised plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan to allow the White House to wait until President Hamid Karzai leaves office before completing a security pact and settling on a post-2014 U.S. troop presence, officials said.

The option for waiting reflects a growing belief in Washington that there is little chance of repairing relations with Mr. Karzai and getting him to sign the bilateral security agreement before elections scheduled for the spring.

"If he's not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him," said a senior U.S. official. "It's a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the BSA and that he doesn't represent the voice of the Afghan people."

Peter Tomsen, writing for Politico, noted that those who wonder what Karzai is thinking should note his political motivations.

And while he’s not running in the Afghan presidential campaign that began Monday, Feb. 3, he does seem to be maneuvering for future relevance, drawing on his period in office and on his tribal status as leader of the important Pashtun Popalzai tribe in southern Afghanistan. Karzai may see the predominantly Pashtun Taliban gaining strength after the U.S. withdrawal, reckoning that he has much to gain and little to lose by bashing America. And becoming a more vocal critic of the United States obfuscates the American support that lifted him into the presidency after 9/11.

All of the leading contenders to replace Karzai criticize his anti-American course. His former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rasoul; his former close advisor and finance minister Ashraf Ghani; and his older brother, Qayyum Karzai, have all declared that they would sign the troop deal with the United States. Each seeks to separate himself from the president, stressing that Afghanistan must maintain a strategic partnership with the West.

But Karzai’s unlikely to change direction. He is probably attempting to position himself as a future bridge between the Taliban and the next Afghan government. He may hope to be seen as an elder tribal leader and international statesman deserving respect and deference by the winning candidate, and by Afghan political, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders generally—including the Taliban. He might decide to tone his anti-Americanism down a notch now that the presidential campaign is underway and, constitutionally, he is a lame duck. And while the U.S.-led coalition should not count on it, Karzai might even deputize a cabinet minister to sign the troop agreement on his behalf before his successor takes office. But don’t expect him to keep quiet.

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