BAGRAM, Afghanistan —
Thursday morning, the gates of the Parwan Detention Center near Bagram Air Field swung open and 65 men with long beards and new clothes walked out to freedom. The moment showed clearly how thoroughly President Hamid Karzai had broken with the U.S. military, in Afghanistan now for more than 12 years.
U.S. officials had lobbied intensely with the Afghan government, first in private and then in increasingly acrimonious terms in public, to prevent the release of men it believed are dangerous insurgents with U.S. and Afghan blood on their hands and men who would be convicted of that in an Afghan court.
Instead, U.S. soldiers on duty at the formerly U.S.-run detention facility north of Kabul, the capital, watched on closed-circuit TV monitors as Afghan military police used Ford pickups to take the prisoners to the nearest bazaar to catch taxis, saving them a 1½ -mile walk. Prison authorities had given each man, in addition to clothes, warm coats and 5,000 afghanis, or about $90, nearly half the base monthly salary of an Afghan police officer.
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Karzai, on a visit to Turkey with his defense minister, Bismullah Khan, was unmoved by U.S. cries of foul. “If Afghan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it’s of no concern to the U.S.,” he said, according to a Twitter message from his spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
The dispute over the release has simmered since early last year, when the United States turned over the prison to Afghan control as part of its plan to withdraw forces from Afghanistan.
Many U.S. military leaders noted a troubling parallel with Iraq, where hundreds of Sunni inmates have escaped from Iraqi prisons, often in mass jail breaks, giving new impetus to the insurgency there.
As one NATO officer in Kabul said: “Here, they don’t even have to escape. They just walk out, thanks to our own allies.”
Karzai continues to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement, which would keep U.S. troops in the country past this year; the Americans had wanted the agreement signed by December, well before the April 5 presidential election in Afghanistan. But this week, the Obama administration suggested it could be willing to wait to see whether Karzai’s successor might be easier to work with in deciding how many U.S. and international troops remain when combat concludes at the end of the year.
In April, the U.S. military signed an agreement that only Afghan forces could raid homes at night. In March, in response to demands from Karzai, the U.S. military also pulled special-operations units out of parts of Wardak province, and since then has all but stopped bombing raids to avoid risking more civilian casualties. Although Karzai has complained about coalition-caused civilian deaths, he has been relatively silent about far more numerous civilian deaths inflicted by insurgents.
Against this backdrop, said a coalition official speaking on condition of anonymity, “This does feel like that moment when everything changes.”
The official added: “We’ve survived many disputes with the Afghans. We take a few body blows, but we muddle through and the mission keeps going.”
Of all the disputes with Afghan leaders, none has been as infuriating as the prisoner releases, especially to military commanders steeped in a tradition of force protection above all else.
“Detainees from this group of 65 are directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 U.S. or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians,” the U.S. military said Thursday.
If the past is any guide, the statement noted, some of these prisoners will head right back to war, like many of the 560 other suspected insurgents the Afghans have released from Bagram in the past year.
In an email, the U.S. military said it believed some of these newly freed insurgents had “already returned to the fight.”
That and previous statements released this week and last month by the U.S. military were unusually outspoken, demanding that the final group of prisoners handed over to Afghan custody whose cases were under review be sent to stand trial.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also condemned the release: “This decision, which appears to have been made based on political calculations and without regard for due process before the Afghan courts, is a major step backward for the rule of law in Afghanistan and poses serious security concerns.”
Many of the prisoners had been held at Parwan for years as enemy combatants, without judicial review by Afghan authorities. Karzai, who has called the prison a “Taliban-producing factory,” has said repeatedly that he wants to see it closed, although there are hundreds of others being held there by Afghan authorities. The only prisoners known to still be in U.S. custody at the facility are an unknown number of foreign prisoners, believed to be mostly Pakistanis.
For the United States, the release of the men is another sign of Karzai’s erratic behavior and the weakness of Afghanistan’s justice system. A military spokesman said many of the 65 were captured after Afghan authorities took over the prison last March, and dossiers of evidence had been handed over to try them in Afghan courts.
The U.S. military took the rare step of publicly releasing information about some of the prisoners, citing biometric data and explosives residue tests as indications that they were linked to the insurgency.
One former detainee, Mohammad Wali, captured by coalition forces in Helmand province in May, was described by U.S. military officials as “a suspected Taliban explosives expert” who placed roadside bombs targeting Afghan and coalition forces.
The 65 were ordered released by an Afghan review board, which determined that there was not enough evidence to try them, according to Abdul Shakor Dadras, who heads the board.
In Washington, the response of Obama administration officials was more muted than that of the military in Afghanistan. “Is it really worth a showdown if the Afghans don’t want to prosecute?” one official said.
Material from The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times is included in this report.